Is Teacher Training the Answer to Failing Schools?

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The New York Times has done it again, this time in an op-ed column by Bill Keller that blames inadequate teacher training for the failures of our education system. Keller quotes the National Council on Teacher Quality, stating that teacher education is “an industry of mediocrity.” He poses that charter school-sponsored teacher training programs could be the wave of the future. While my experiences both as a master’s student in education and as someone who has worked for a for-profit education venture (full disclosure: I assist students with tesol courses in New York City for Oxford Seminars) have taught me that Keller isn’t exactly wrong—I haven’t been thrilled with all of my educational opportunities—making teacher training a corporate-style, charter-sponsored venture neglects the real reasons why students—and sometimes teachers—are failing.

Poor students

Keller opens his op-ed with a charming anecdote from a teacher training at Harlem Village Academies Charter Schools:

“Does ‘get it’ mean getting an answer?” [teacher Bill] Jackson asked. “Or does it mean really understanding what’s going on?”

At that point Deborah Kenny, the founder of the Harlem Village Academies charter schools, leaned over to me: “That right there, that is why we’re starting a graduate school.”

Kenny’s “that right there” is likely referring to the guidance provided by veteran teacher Bill Jackson and not the content of the guidance itself: that education is not necessarily about “getting an answer,” but “understanding what is going on.” On the contrary, those in support of corporate-style education reform tend to be obsessed with “getting an answer,” and using concrete statistics to figure out who to blame for schools not producing the measurable outcomes that these schools desire.

What’s actually “going on” is that a student’s economic background affects measurable education outcomes such as test scores and graduation rates much more than the quality of teachers. If we look at the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, impoverished students in the United States score similarly to poor students in other countries. But charter-related teacher trainings often direct teachers to turn a blind eye to the real effects that poverty can have on student achievement. Impoverished children must be too much to look at, too much of a problem for our government or the wealthy corporate foundations behind education reform to handle.

Anecdotally, a number of teachers I know have quit charter schools because of the increased focus on numerical data. A scale from 1 to 5 doesn’t say much about what teachers actually do, or what students have actually learned. And how many of you felt completely trained for your job right out of school? The point of education shouldn’t be fostering an ability to learn facts and trivia (or identify them on a multiple choice test), but learning how to learn and integrate that new knowledge into a rich and fulfilling life.

Poor teachers

Keller also points to a statistic from the Education Policy Center at Michigan State, which found that “middle school math teachers may know a lot about teaching, they often don’t know very much about math.” We certainly want our teachers to know about math, but when other math-related jobs pay much better (and come with more prestige) than teaching, who is going to choose a career as a teacher?

In this recent article on “Why Teachers Quit”, Liz Riggs explores the high rate of teacher turnover, which is especially high at charter schools. Charter school teachers are “overworked and underpaid,” and also don’t have the job security that comes with being affiliated with a teacher’s union. Schools like Harlem Village Academies, or the already-established Relay Graduate School of Education, filter teachers into these privately-run schools. When the average starting salary of a teacher in the US is $35,672 for seemingly ceaseless work, no wonder teachers leave the profession for other fulfilling work.

Additionally, teaching doesn’t have the same cultural cachet that it has in nations that writers like Amanda Ripley like to compare the US to. Yes, top students enroll in Finland’s teacher training programs, but Finland honors teachers and recognizes that education is complex work. We live in a culture of anti-intellectualism. We praise money, so of course our leaders will try to implement strategies that amass money to amass desirable educational outcomes.

My experiences teaching in Korea may have taught me more about the act of teaching than my graduate program has so far, but ultimately, I value learning about pedagogy and theory. I value my access to emerging research. Ultimately, the one thing that these programs have right is that one must teach in order to learn how to teach, but that shouldn’t subtract value from the other tools that a university education supplies. We need to look at “what’s going on” before pointing fingers and deciding that poorly-trained teachers are the reason for our academic woes.