Opening Classroom Doors

A good teacher friend emailed this article: Nicholas Kristof:

Suppose Colin Powell tires of giving $100,000-a-pop speeches and wants to teach high school social studies. Suppose Meryl Streep has a hankering to teach drama.
Alas, they would be “unqualified” for a public school. Elite private schools would snap them up, of course, but public schools that are begging for teachers would have to turn them away because they don’t have teacher certification.
That’s an absurd snarl in our education bureaucracy. Let’s relax the barriers so people can enter teaching more easily, either right out of college or later as a midcareer switch.

Sure, there are lots of other problems in the U.S. education system. But this is one of the easiest to solve.
One reason to act is that the U.S. faces a growing shortage of teachers. Just to keep student-teacher ratios where they are now, we need a 35 percent increase in the number of people entering teaching.
The other problem is that the quality of teachers is deteriorating, mostly because — fortunately! — women have more career options. A smart and ambitious woman graduating from college in 1970 often ended up as a third-grade teacher; today, she ends up as a surgeon or senator.
The upshot is that between 1971 and 1974, 24 percent of teachers had scored in the top 10 percent on their high school achievement tests. Now only 11 percent have done so.
So one study after another has concluded that it is time to relax teacher certification requirements.
“Barriers to entry are too high,” declared last month’s final report of the Teaching Commission, a private blue-ribbon panel led by Louis Gerstner, the former I.B.M. chief. “Confusing and cumbersome procedures discourage many talented would-be teachers from entering the classroom.”
A white paper from the Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institution urged, “Rather than dig further down in the pool of those willing to consider teacher certification programs or raise class sizes, we need to expand the pool of those eligible to teach.”
In a new book called “Tough Love for Schools,” Frederick Hess argues that applicants should be eligible for teaching jobs if they have graduated from a recognized college, have passed a competency test in their field and have passed a rigorous background check. Principals may prefer to hire graduates of teaching colleges, he writes, but they should have the option to hire other outstanding applicants as well.
That’s the situation in some of America’s most elite private high schools. Phillips Exeter Academy, for example, says that 85 percent of its faculty have advanced degrees but probably only a handful are certified. (Since it is private, it doesn’t worry about certification or even keep track of which teachers are certified.)
At Exeter, for example, biology is taught by a former doctor. Japanese is taught by a former businessman who worked in Japan. And a history teacher arrived with no teaching experience but has published five books.
The idea behind teacher certification is that there are special skills that are picked up in teacher training courses — secret snake-charming skills to keep the little vipers calm. But there’s no evidence this is so. On the contrary, several new programs have brought outstanding young people into teaching without putting them through conventional training programs, and those teachers have been widely hailed as first-rate.
One superb initiative for young college graduates is Teach for America, which last year had 17,000 applicants for 2,000 spots teaching in low-income schools. Among those who applied were 12 percent of Yale’s senior class and 8 percent of Harvard’s and Princeton’s.
Teach for America participants get only an intensive six-week training session, yet they excel in the classroom. One study found that classes with a Teach for America participant learn an extra month of math over the school year, compared with classes with a traditional teacher.
Likewise, Troops to Teachers helps retiring military personnel become teachers in public schools. And I.B.M. has started a program to help executives with math or science backgrounds switch to teaching.
Granted, intellectual brilliance alone does not make a great teacher. When I think of my best teachers, like Juanita Trantina in the fifth grade, they didn’t just teach us but also inspired us, humored us, tamed us and enchanted us. Maybe it helps to be brilliant and to have studied teaching, but mostly it is personality. Colin Powell, Meryl Streep and many anonymous others would dazzle the surliest student, so why continue to bar them at the schoolhouse door?