Defending the Teaching Profession

Last week the Minnesota State Senate passed legislation establishing alternative licensure requirements for Minnesota‘s teachers.   Supporters argue this will “put children first” and “close the achievement gap” in our schools.  They also argue that talented people are blocked from the teaching profession by unnecessarily rigid certification requirements. 

I disagree. 

In fact I strongly disagree.  It would seem to me that in an era when school budgets are being slashed to the point where kids need to bring their own paper towels to school that we might have problems other than a lack of qualified teachers. 

In fact…isn’t true that schools have been forced to cut teachers?

I think I know what’s going on here…the same people pushing for these changes are the same people that argue budget cuts are good for schools…but let’s look at the issue from a common sense point of view.

Being a retired engineer doesn’t mean you will be a good math teacher.  Being a good mechanic doesn’t mean you’ll be a good auto shop teacher.  Having experience and talent in a profession doesn’t mean you have talent and skill in the teaching profession. 

I work in sales.  I would argue that most of the people who buy and use my services would be lousy sales people.  Even those who understand the value of what I do as well as — or even better than — I do might not be able to sell the product to people who don’t understand the value. 

There is a lot more to sales than just knowing a product or an industry.  Likewise, there is a lot more to teaching than having a background in an academic subject.

In graduate school I taught several undergraduate courses in the humanities, simple Western civilization courses.  You learn immediately that there is more to teaching than just a love and knowledge of the subject you are teaching.  You rely on tangible assets like training and experience as much as you do knowledge.  But there is a very intangible asset necessary to teaching.  Important teaching qualities — patience, empathy, discipline — simply do not follow inherently from a desire to teach.  Teaching programs help identify these qualities…as well as the lack of them.

Most arguments for changing teaching license requirements start from some correct premises — we do have an education problem — but it is difficult to see how changing the current teacher licensing process addresses those problems.  If teachers are the solution to classroom woes, well…we’ve got them!

No, a shortage of qualified teachers isn’t the issue and it is a sham to say it is…for the most part.

There are indeed schools were students are taught by under-qualified teachers — mostly in schools with high minority and immigrant enrolments — but these again are primarily funding issues. 

Mathematics teachers, for example, are more difficult to find than physical education teachers.  Teachers in demand have options and opt for those schools that offer more.  In situations like these you might argue that districts would benefit from math being taught by someone with a background in mathematics, but not a standard license, versus a standardly credentialed teacher with a bachelors degree in history.  If alternative licensure were meant to address these situations and only these situations, I could support it.  But the real issue is funding in these schools, not the teaching workforce.

Arguments favoring alternative licensure to address achievement gaps are insincere at best.  Lack of qualified teachers is not the problem.  What we need is better and stronger funding of schools and a commitment to employ highly trained and experienced teachers already in the teaching pool. 

And what is wrong with teachers expecting fair compensation?  They are trained professionals providing a valuable service.  If the United States expects to remain competitive globally, you would think the last thing people would support would be dumbing down education further in this country.

But people do support this.  They also support multi-million dollar salaries for people in fields like finance and argue that high compensation is justified to attract the best performers.  Double standard?

The push for alternative licensure comes largely from the political right.  Sadly, teaching is among those once-respected professions that the right now vilifies almost solely on the grounds of union membership.  Teachers join government workers, factory workers, and trade workers — at least those that are still unionized — as social and economic pariah.  And we stand for it. 

We have to get away from thinking that everything government does is backward and inefficient.  People who enter public service deserve our respect.   

Working solutions exist.  Start with funding that does not link school funding to local school district tax bases.  At the same time look at collective contracts for school supplies and services.  The achievement gap that people talk about follows a very close correlation with school district funding.  It might surprise anyone but those blinding following an anti-teacher slant that schools with smaller budgets can hire fewer experienced teachers. 

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