Tuesday, August 18

The Good Teacher

Patrick Welsh, "The Ed.D and Other Certification Charades", in "Do Teachers Need Education Degrees?" August 16

LET'S note, first of all, that Ross "Linkmaster" Douthat can--as part of his ongoing shillery which is supposed, best guess, to convince someone other than cloistered East Coast Burkeans and whatever Titans of Industry actually give a shit about anything but Capital, that the real Republican party isn't the one they've seen for the last fifty years--perpetrate this sentence:
If the Democratic Party’s attempt at health care reform perishes, senior citizens will have done it in, not talk-radio listeners and Glenn Beck acolytes. It’s the skepticism of over-65 Americans that’s dragging support for reform southward. And it’s their opposition to cost-cutting that makes finding the money to pay for it so difficult.

without any linkage whatever. Ross, Ross, Ross: who says the Democratic Party's attempting health care reform? Who qualifies as a senior citizen? What is Glenn Beck's home address? I need to know where to find the answers, and in my dotage I depend on grown men with teenage beards to lead me to them. Just like shopping at Best Buy.

But mostly I need to know whose ass that "statistic" was pulled from.

And look, Ross, it's not that Monday's--you should pardon the expression--effort ("Sure, Republicans should use the imminent de facto replacement of Medicare with Senior Death Camps to generate cheap, uninformed political opposition, but they should also remember to toss in a scoff about literal Death Camps as an aside, so no one confuses them with the raving fucking lunatics who agree with 'em; they should not lose sight of the fact that their real mission is to eradicate Medicare altogether; and also bear in mind that actual corpses piling up on the highway could have an inflationary effect on future transportation costs. Plus, they should tread lightly near the seductive practice of abandoning their supposed principles for tawdry, temporal partisan gain, since this is their first time doing so in the History of the Republic, and the erection might last more than four hours"*) wasn't among the thirty most pointless, vapid, and intellectually dishonest you've turned out for the Times. It's just that it's the beginning of the school year, and I'm got the annual beehive in my baseball hat, and you know how bees get this time of year. On second thought, you probably don't.

We can't stress enough: if you shop for groceries, or purchase gas--let alone try to deal with a medical insurer--and you have the wit to look around you and notice things, you know that The Free Market is such a transparent fiction that whoever shovels the thing at you is a liar or an idiot. Similarly, if you've ever had some sort of difference of opinion with a chain store which required you to speak with a manager, or someone further up the Chain of Command, you are perfectly aware, whether or not you realize it, of the utter catastrophe awaiting the school system which turns over its standards to administrators.

Put it another way: why, apart from the inherent literacy requirement, don't we let cops write the laws?

Patrick Welsh, who teaches English at T. C. Williams High in Alexandria, VA:
The credentialing game in public education may have once been a well-meaning effort to create some measurable criteria to maintain standards, but it has turned into an absurd process that forces both teachers and administrators to waste time jumping through hoops that have little or no relation to their job performance.

It's like a tire with very little tread wear, and a four-inch slash on the sidewall. How did we go from "the credentials game" (and aren't they all? Every bad haircut I ever got in my life came from someone with a license. Okay, except the one I gave myself on mescaline in 1974) to the educational requirements themselves being the problem? What changed, exactly, to make the "well-meaning effort" obsolete?

Two things, here. One, Indiana happens to be one of those well-meaning states which actually requires teachers to be certified both for the content of their subject matter and the class level they attempt to impart it to. That is, we do currently, though it's under attack from our first elected Superintendent of Public Instruction who did not, as I recall it, campaign on a platform of Throwing the Doors Open to anyone who thinks teaching sounds like a couple-months' lark and a sweet paycheck with lots of vacation time. In an era of shrinking budgets and crypto-defunding of public education via "charters"--where all those unqualified teachers are qualified to teach anyway--the engine behind this seems a little difficult to locate, unless you have an inkling or two about union busting. Or shop for groceries.

Second, my Poor Wife joins millions of others in having jumped through those same hoops every two years, on average (and in having delayed the acquistion of a Master's degree on the grounds that doing so might have actually priced her out of the job market, just so we're clear that The Credentials Game cuts both ways). And while again we want to make it clear that, as always, none of this speaks for her, if I were to guess it would be that she'd gladly swap the series of hoops she jumps through on a weekly basis, in the name, frequently, of "educational reform" (say, for example, Sunday's five hours of writing weekly progress reports so they can join thousands of others sitting in someone's Ignore basket downtown). Which hoops, by the way, are not going to disappear just because we hire a bunch of anti-hooparians as teachers.
Nothing shows how downright phony the game is than the Ed.D.s — the Doctors of Education. I have seen administrators who have had trouble writing clear letters home to parents and who murdered the English language in public go about brandishing their degrees and insisting on being called “Doctor.” On the other hand, the two best principals in my high school — T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Va. — never bothered to get “doctorate” degrees; in fact, one did not even have a master’s when he was first hired. Both were appointed by wise superintendents who knew natural leaders when they saw them.

Though both were, presumably, educators, not meat cutters or file clerks or Admiralty doorknob polishers.

We're not going to argue with the contention; we've seen it in action any number of times. What we take issue with is the idea that a pompous windbag holding a Ph.D justifies the notion that anyone can do the work, and the less educational "indoctrination" the better. Where does that idea come from? Surely not real life; not from hiring the shade-tree mechanic, the itinerant roofer, or the brother-in-law who knows everything about computers. Surely not from the Bush administration version, in which "highly qualified" military outsiders managed to accomplish the World's Longest Pooch Screwing in Iraq and Afghanistan. We know absolutely nothing of the Alexandria, VA, school system, but we'd lay five large that the people it has empowered to make executive decisions have just as often advanced cronies and sycophants as miracle-working degree-shunners. Sheesh, Mr. Welsh, who put all those idiot Ph.Ds in your path in the first place? And why?
The credentialing game is even worse when it comes to teachers, because bureaucrats, obsessed with rules and numbers, would rather hire a mediocre but “fully certified” prospect than the brightest, most promising applicant who lacked the “education” courses.

Well, to begin, "even worse" oversteps; a single administrator can do the damage of ten or a hundred bad teachers, who are, at least, operating under hourly scrutiny and subject to a regular public review process, and who don't have personal secretaries to duck the phone calls of irate parents for them. Second, we ask again, with no more expectation that we'll be answered than any previous time, where are all these qualified people who want to teach but didn't want to get the required education degree? Are the lines of applicants too long at private and charter schools around the country for them to wait their turn? Anxious little fuckers, ain't they?
Take the case of a young woman who taught government at our school a few years ago

What's the plural of "anecdote", again?
A Yale graduate, a dynamic teacher and coach loved by kids and parents, she came into the school system on a “provisional certification” policy that gave her three years to take the required 18 credit hours. At the end of the third year she completed all the course work and carried her transcripts to the Alexandria personnel office, only to learn from the district director of human resources that he was terminating her. His reason: The state would not be able to get the piece of paper saying that she was officially certified to the director’s office before the beginning of school in September.

Okay. One: maybe it's the fucking system that's at fault, not the concept of accreditation; three years to complete eighteen course hours while teaching full time seems pretty steep to me, but my indolence is World Class. Two: as is so often the case, there's an obvious failure at the supervisory/professional level here that gets a free pass so we can blame Evil Uncaring Bureaucrats. She's not just a Yalie who decides to teach at a public school. She's a much-beloved teacher and coach, yet no one thinks to make sure she's on track to get that certificate on time! Doesn't find out until she walks in the office with the completed paperwork. She wasn't working nights as a cabbie, too, was she?

And if that doesn't flunk the smell test sir, this does: there's always some way to keep people around for a semester. Teacher's aide, teaching assistant, permanent sub; most places don't require coaches, beloved or no, to be faculty members. She just underwent three years of considerable class loads, in addition to teaching and coaching, and she can't wait three more months before she can sign a teaching contract? And no one at your school was willing to move heaven and earth to keep her? I think the problem's more basic than bureaucratic inertia. And closer to home.
A few years ago one of the brightest, most dynamic and popular teachers in the school

What's the singular of "data", again?
young man who had 48 graduate hours in creative writing — was told he would not be certified unless he took a basic composition course, a low-level course he had been exempted from at the University of Virginia on the basis of his Advanced Placement score in high school. Fed up with this and other courses he was required to take to be deemed “highly qualified,” this terrific teacher resigned.

Forty-eight graduate hours in creative writing? What'd he do after his hissy fit? Go back to the management track at Wendy's?

Okay, sorry, easy joke. But, sheesh, don't tell me a lifelong teacher hears that story and says, "Oh, damn, and he was so close to entering a profession where his intelligence would never, ever be insulted again." C'mon. All the guy had to do was contact the instructor of Insulting and Demeaning Composition 101, and arrange to get an A without attending. Or do the entire course load one weekend. And pay the fee. Was it being taught by a complete idiot? Or a cabbie?
A good start to ensure that schools get the best people in the classrooms would be to stop filtering candidates through personnel offices obsessed with education courses and “certification,” and allow individual schools to advertise for the positions they need, and then allow principals along with panels of teachers to hire enthusiastic candidates who exhibit knowledge and love of their subject and a passion for communicating that knowledge and love to students. The only requirement for “certification” should be that the new prospects accept mentoring by the best teachers in the school.

Yeah, the sort of mentoring program for exciting new teacher prospects that is entirely absent at T. C. Williams High, Alexandria, VA.
Will there be mistakes in judgment and some candidates simply not pan out? Of course, but there is an easy solution — get rid of those who turn off kids and can’t get them excited about learning.

I'm not sayin' we won't get our hair mussed...
Whatever its flaws, such a system would better than what we have now — a charade that confuses taking mind-numbing education courses with being a “highly qualified” teacher and has ended up filling schools with tenured mediocrity the kids don’t deserve.

Now, as our cab recedes like the business end of a Crayola Yellow Orange with a case of the mumps, let's return to the halls of Indianapolis Public Schools, where Your Mileage May Vary, but where new teachers are mentored despite (or because of) their having completed a full BS program, including half their time-wasting spent in Education courses, and a full semester's classroom teaching experience. And where, despite an all-powerful Union, they may essentially be fired for any reason their first two years. Let's see if we can't catch a glimpse of the crackerjack system which is going to take legions of raw Yalies and turn them into qualified teachers in a way the precise same system has apparently been unable to do with specifically trained graduates who chose education as a career.



* This was, to my knowledge, the World's Longest Shorter (concept: D Squared; perfection: E. Beard)


Narya said...

When doing a bunch of research on public school education teachers (specifically on the unionization thereof), several things stood out:

1. Should a teacher learn a SUBJECT? Or should a teacher learn EDUCATION?

2. Those teachers need an ADMINISTRATOR to run things, damnit!

3. The only way for a "line" worker, i.e., a teacher, to earn more money was/is to become . . . an administrator. Thus, one sets up a system where the best teachers need to stop teaching in order to earn more money. (I've seen this in so many different fields at this point that I've become convinced it's one of the low-level Problems of Our Time.)

4. And, by the way, it's up to the teacher to Inspire the Yoots.

The stuff I was reading was written in the first two decades of the last century. Nice (or not . . .) to see some things don't change much.

David said...

Nowhere is the peter principle so obviously in force as in the apportioning of power among school administrators.

I nearly lost my teaching job, by the way, in a similar bureaucratic trivia-tragedy. My first year on contract was also the first year teachers (in Fairfax County, right next door to Alexandria but much, much bigger) had to take a standardized exam with focus in content areas, general knowledge, and teacher knowledge. I had to take it, but the minimum score was zero. That may have been a union-negotiated stupidity, I'm not sure. Anyhow, I took the test--a College Board joint, I think, designed for teachers. It was rilly rilly easy, and about six weeks later I got my little letter in the mail--all A's, like 99 percentile, I was proud and all.

That spring I get an ominous registered letter with a date at Headquarters. Nobody on the phone will explain, except this: I'm to be terminated. For what, I ask. They say, show up. Really. I'm pretty concerned, but they truly would not tell me anything. So I show up and I'm held in a room with a bunch of serious losers. The guy next to me is drunk; a young woman across the way is weeping and poking her skin with a safety pin. Another old guy has a huge stack of papers and other stuff in his lap and stares straight ahead, furious. I meet a guy who's there because he's fighting a complaint of sexual harassment against a student.

They call my name. I go in a room. Four important looking people. They introduce themselves. Scary titles. They say: I will be terminated unless I can demonstrate that I took the teacher standardized test, as required. I say, Holy Shit, not out loud, and then say, I took it! But I can't prove it because YOU WOULDN'T TELL ME WHAT THE PROBLEM WAS. The letter sits at home in my files. They say, no good. You have to present a sealed copy of the scores. I remind them that I didn't have to have a minimum score; they don't blink, don't care, repeat: sealed copy. I tell them that, just like EVERY FUCKING STANDARDIZED TEST EVER GIVEN BY THE COLLEGE BOARD, I filled out a form to have sealed scores delivered to them, my employer. In fact, I paid extra for the report. They are not moved by this. They remind me that probationary employees can be fired at any time, even those nominated for Teacher of the Year. (They didn't mention that last bit; I threw that in.) I said, I can go home and get the letter; I can have a duplicate sent, etc.; they say, sorry, deadline is past, which is why I have to be terminated. I tell them that I stayed in my current job at sub salary for half the year to help the school system cover up a sex scandal. They don't know, or don't care, about my team-player abilities. They might as well have been carved out of large bars of Ivory soap.
I plead the point on the College Board deciding that I was the one person in fifty years of testing that they decided not to send a score report for. Finally one guy gets up and goes out, comes back in five minutes later with, evidently, my file ("The fellows down in personnel/they have a card on me...") He opens it and there, RIGHT ON TOP, is a score report from the College Board. We look at it a moment. It's in a plastic bag. He holds it up. Says, Look, it's been tampered with. We all look closer. It's one of those letters with perfed edges, you fold them and tear them off and open it up. The corner is crumpled a bit, but the thing isn't opened or anything. It's a bit crumpled. OK, I say, carefully, that appears to be a score report. They all look at it. Then they open it up, and it is a score report. All A's, 99percentile, etc.
The one guy looks at me and says, OK, never mind. You can go.

I go. Florida was nice.

That was exactly 25 teaching years ago.


Davis X. Machina said...

Credentialism can run amok.

I had a superintendent once who only went into administration because he lost his provisional certification in German, and there wasn't enough Latin for a full teaching load.

He had completed all the ed classes, methods of teaching foreign languages, etc.

He was born in Berlin, and had a doctorate in Classics from the Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin, and came to this country on a highly coveted DAAD fellowship, and stayed on.

But the state considered him incapable of proving his mastery of German -- he didn't have a transcript with the required 24 credit hours in German.

Aaron said...

Sure, credentialism can run amok, but the problem isn't "credentials are silly" - the problem is "petty bureaucrats are silly." And eliminating credentials isn't going to do anything about the petty-bureaucrat problem, which will simply find new and creative ways of making it hard for people who care about doing their jobs to do their jobs.

Keifus said...

Yeah, I guess one thing I'm confused about is what he means by "administrators." Evidently, it's the principals, and not those wise superintendants, even though it's the latter who are, at least according to my (mother's) anecdotes, the ones who are richly paid by virtue of attaining those Ed.D.'s. Does education suffer that awful credentialism of the MBA as well?

Although on the other hand, establishment of both education and subject standards for teachers is a fairly obvious need. The need for formal job training can be situational in other words, weighted more heaviy, I'd think, in situations where a clear skill set and knowledge base is required.

And of course this guy speaks as if the requirement that failing to excite kids, and all the other vague accountability mumbo-jumbo, isn't a mountain of bureaucracy all it's own. (Although in fairness, any teachers I know suffer both versions of the bureaucratic nightmare. So maybe it would be nice to pare it down to one set of annoying requirements.)

And finally, if you really wanted to attract the best teaching talent, you could always try, you know, paying 'em competitively.

Alan said...

“mind numbing… courses”

Indeed. The thought that teachers should have to teach them! I mean, take them!

“tenured mediocrity the kids don’t deserve.”

I beg your pardon?

MR Bill said...

Elton Beard, thou shoulds't be blogging in this hour....