Teachers Without a Clue
By Vin Suprynowicz 1996-09-22

A national commission headed by North Carolina Gov. James Hunt, a Democrat, and financed by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, released a report Sept. 12 which concludes that an alarming number of the nation's public school teachers are hired without proper credentials, rarely get much help from their schools to improve their subject knowledge, and tend to leave after a few years.

In this political season, a rush to demand more stringent certification requirements can be expected.

But note where the commission says many teachers are deficient. Rene Sanchez of The Washington Post reports the commission "found that about one-fourth of high school teachers lack college training in their primary classroom subject," and "that nearly 40 percent of math teachers are not fully qualified for their assignment."

Far from solving this problem, in many cases stringent "certification requirements" actually helped cause it.

In many states right now — though Texas and California are notable exceptions — a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering, retiring after a 20-year Air Force career but still in his or her 40s, who may also have glowing endorsements for classroom experience teaching adult "students" in the armed forces or in industry, has little chance of being hired to teach even introductory mathematics in a government school, unless he or she is willing to take off a year-and-a-half and go "back to school" for an education certificate.

In Nevada today, if such a candidate is short by even a single hour of required School of Education training, he may find it impossible to pick up that required hour on a part-time basis. (Confronted by just such attempts at "alternative licensure" for career-changing professionals, the school of education at UNLV — a monopoly in the Las Vegas area — has just coyly announced that it will be accepting only full-time students.)

Meantime, while they're unable or unwilling to hire that kind of applicant, schools have no trouble putting a gym coach who took a few semesters of college algebra years ago in charge of a high school math class, since he has the vital "teacher's certificate."

"Getting tough" by mandating that prospective teachers must take even more credits in the College of Education — far from encouraging them to develop more expertise in the subject area they hope to teach — will in fact only further reduce the time they have to master history, chemistry, or calculus.

Of course, mastery of the subject matter doesn't automatically make a good teacher. Communication skills are also needed.

But the schools now face a crisis which can only grow, as enrollments swell and the current teacher corps approaches retirement, necessitating the projected hiring of 2 million new teachers in the next decade.

In this circumstance, it's increasingly evident that more innovative and flexible systems of alternative licensure, and hands-on training of likely candidates in the classroom by "mentors" of their own choosing, are no longer optional luxuries, but dire necessities.

Centralized government control of the licensing process has resulted in the current, sorry state of affairs. Why, then, should we assume that the best solution is to demand even more stringent, centralized government licensing — beefing up the enforced monopoly of the same "schools of education" that gave us the current state of affairs?

The folks most likely to notice an incompetent or struggling teacher are the students, the principal, the parents, and the local school board, pretty much in that order.

Isn't it finally time to shatter the top-down, Soviet model, command-and-control dominance of American education?

Those in charge resist any change at all, of course. They worry that parents, once given any real power over budgets, hiring, and curriculum, would quickly realize that the real cost of government education (including construction bonds, staff pension obligations, and other hidden amortizations) probably tops $7,000 per student per year.

From there, it's not a long leap to realize that — allowed to retain their share of that tax money for its own use — a family could either afford a top-notch private school, or else could again get by on one salary, leaving one parent home to school the kids.

Those in charge of this largest of our government Ponzi schemes worry that — once their monopoly is fractured and parents get a look at some competing, free-market alternatives — the mandatory government youth propaganda camps will wash away like a mud dam in a 100-year flood.

They're right.

When do we start?

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Readers may contact him via e-mail at vin@intermind.net. He welcomes both fan mail and hate mail.

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