Should it Be This Easy to Become a Teacher?

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Schools systems are using a variety of methods to attract and hire instructors

I wanted to teach right after college, but I didnít want to go to education school — too many hours, too much money to commit to a career I wasnít sure I wanted long-term. So I applied to my high school alma mater, a private day school in New Jersey. During the day of interviews my standard line, so earnest, so arrogant, was, "I want to give something back." It took the head of the upper school to call my bluff: "If you only stay a year or two," he asked, "do you really think youíll be giving more to the school than youíll be getting in return?"

Itís a tough question, and itís one that school districts across the country need to ask of themselves as they continue to fill classrooms with scores of energetic but unprepared teachers like the one I was. Widespread teacher shortages — which will become even more acute in the next few years — have made a mockery of the idea that teachers should have licenses before taking over classrooms. In California, more than 37,000 teachers donít have credentials. Hundreds of districts, from Boston to Chicago to Seattle, have begun experimenting with alternatives to certification in order to find new teachers. Which may not be a bad thing if you think teacher education programs waste everyoneís time on useless blather like "metacognition" and "modality processing." But as districts race to lower their entrance barriers, it isnít clear whether staffing classrooms with amateurs is simply a short-term fix (that could have lasting harmful consequences) or a cost-effective long-term solution to our nationís teacher shortage.

Studies show that teachers who go through rigorous preparation programs are nearly three times more likely to stay in the profession long-term than those who donít
Earlier this month researchers at Stanford presented the results of the first significant study to explore this issue. They found that teachers from Teach For America, a highly regarded program that places college graduates in tough urban and rural schools with just five weeks of training, performed just as well as the other teachers in the Houston, Texas schools that were examined. The study was sponsored by the conservative Fordham Foundation, which triumphantly proclaimed that the results prove that "itís not necessary to spend an extended period in an ed school in order to be effective in a K-12 classroom."

Not so fast, says the National Commission on Teaching and Americaís Future. The Commission points out that in the study, the Teach For America teachers were compared to all new teachers, not just those with credentials. And in Houston, thanks to the emergency hiring of scores of novices, last year 35% of new hires did not even hold a bachelorís degree. Says the Commission: "To say that TFA teachers do just about as well as other new [Houston] teachers, an extraordinary number of whom are extraordinarily unqualified, is a weak endorsement at best."

Beneath the tired, fruitless battles between Fordham and the Commission are some important truths. We do need to find new ways to attract more and better teachers — and since states seem in no mood to raise taxes, bumping up salaries may not be an option. Lowering entrance barriers is one proven way to attract new talent: there is no doubt that the time and money involved in becoming certified, along with the poor quality of many teacher education programs, turns people away. But it is also true that such barriers tend to weed out the half- hearted: studies show that teachers who go through rigorous preparation programs are nearly three times more likely to stay in the profession long-term than those who donít. What good will it do if we attract scores of new teachers only to have them leave one or two years later? Thatís why many in the educational establishment criticize Teach For America: its graduates are required to stay in their schools for two years, but after that, the vast majority leave. In the years that follow, however, something unexpected has happened: more and more of these graduates at some point in their lives are returning to education, often as administrators.

My alma mater did give me the job, and I stayed for three years. Maybe that wasnít enough time to give something back. But those years did turn me on to the profession (hey, at least I now write about education), and in the future I do hope to return to the classroom. Iím not sure, however, if that makes it worth it to hire amateurs like me.