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Only the Poor and Minorities Left Behind

The U.S. Secretary of Education just issued his first annual report on teacher quality in America. The good news is that he believes "teacher quality to be a key determinant of student success" and calls for our nation to have a "highly qualified teacher" in every classroom by 2005-06, a goal of the President's "No Child Left Behind" omnibus education act.

By President Arthur Levine

A version of this op-ed appeared in the New York Times, June 29, 2002 as "Rookies in the Schools."

The U.S. Secretary of Education just issued his first annual report on teacher quality in America. The good news is that he believes "teacher quality to be a key determinant of student success" and calls for our nation to have a "highly qualified teacher" in every classroom by 2005-06, a goal of the President's "No Child Left Behind" omnibus education act. The bad news is that the Secretary defines "highly qualified teachers" as people high in verbal ability and subject matter knowledge. He dismisses from the definition knowledge of teaching, child development or even student teaching experience. Given this definition of the highly qualified teacher, the Secretary concludes that burdensome education requirements should be eliminated for entering the teaching profession and that state licensure requirements be made more rigorous by increasing their focus on subject matter competence and verbal ability.

This is a recommendation that all but guarantees that our poor and minority youngsters living in the inner cities will continue to be left behind. It is a promise to maintain the achievement gap in academic performance between rich and poor, urban and suburban, and black/Hispanic and white/Asian children. Here's the reason.

Today America has two public school systems, separate and unequal. One is for our affluent suburban children in places like Scarsdale, Lake Forest and Pacific Palisades. Parents pay whopping entrance fees of hundreds of thousands of dollars to send their children to these public school systems by buying homes in these wealthy communities. These school systems treat teaching as a profession. Recognizing their children's performance depends on the quality of their teachers, they pay far higher salaries than inner city schools. They also expect much more in teacher preparation. They ask their teachers to exhibit verbal ability, subject matter proficiency, and knowledge of teaching. With regard to teaching, they want their teachers to know about pedagogy, classroom management, child development, differences in how children learn, curriculum design, assessment of student performance, learning disabilities, educational technology and much more. Such school systems expect their teachers to come to the job with this knowledge. They prize the experience that comes from extended student teaching experiences and prior years of teaching.

For these school systems, the job of teacher is seen as something akin to the job of a doctor. It is not enough to have strong basic intelligence or verbal skills and mastery of basic science to be a doctor. The doctor is also required to have a first rate education in medicine, substantial clinical experience, and an internship before assuming the position of a practicing doctor. These schools expect the precisely same kind of preparation for their teachers before entering their classrooms. This is their definition of a highly qualified teacher.

The other public school system is that which operates in our inner cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, largely for poor and minority children. It treats teaching as a craft. That is, workers come with a rudimentary level of knowledge and they learn their craft on the job. Accordingly, salaries are low. The reality is that a growing proportion of the teachers being hired in inner city schools today are unable to meet state certification requirements. They lack adequate preparation and knowledge in their subject field and/or lack preparation and knowledge in education.

Secretary Paige's report is asking for change here. He is proposing that all people hired as teachers come to the job with subject matter knowledge. This recommendation continues to treat teaching as a craft. The experience that affluent suburban schools demand of their teachers is seen as unnecessary. The knowledge of education that affluent suburban teachers bring to the job will have to be learned on the job by others.
So what this means is not that our affluent schools will change their standards for teachers. They will continue to demand professionals who know their subject matters and how to teach. And they will be able to attract and retain such teachers.

What it really means is that for poor and minority children we are willing to accept something far less and call it a "highly qualified teacher." For them, "a highly qualified teacher" can be a rookie with absolutely no prior experience teaching or even time in a classroom. For them "a highly qualified teacher" is someone will learn about teaching only after he or she has begun to teach them. The research shows that such novice teachers have very high attrition rates in inner city schools. This should assure a continuing line of inexperienced and unprofessional teachers learning by trial and error and making their mistakes on the children who need the best teachers in the country.

This definition of the "highly qualified teacher" strikes me as almost Orwellian, like something out of the book 1984 , in which government tries to convince the public of absurdities like "war is peace." I know this was not the intention here. I deeply admire Secretary Paige for his work as head of the Houston schools. But in this case, his proposal is wrong and it will hurt most the children, who are currently lagging furthest behind, and desperately need "highly qualified teachers." Teachers who only know subject matter are not qualified to enter our classrooms, nor are teachers who only know pedagogy. Our children need teachers who know both. This duality cannot be reserved only for the affluent. Let's have the same definition of "highly qualified teacher" in our inner cities as in our wealthy suburbs. The future of our children and our nation depends upon it.

Published Saturday, Jul. 27, 2002

Only the Poor and Minorities Left Behind

By President Arthur Levine

A version of this op-ed appeared in the New York Times, June 29, 2002 as "Rookies in the Schools."

The U.S. Secretary of Education just issued his first annual report on teacher quality in America. The good news is that he believes "teacher quality to be a key determinant of student success" and calls for our nation to have a "highly qualified teacher" in every classroom by 2005-06, a goal of the President's "No Child Left Behind" omnibus education act. The bad news is that the Secretary defines "highly qualified teachers" as people high in verbal ability and subject matter knowledge. He dismisses from the definition knowledge of teaching, child development or even student teaching experience. Given this definition of the highly qualified teacher, the Secretary concludes that burdensome education requirements should be eliminated for entering the teaching profession and that state licensure requirements be made more rigorous by increasing their focus on subject matter competence and verbal ability.

This is a recommendation that all but guarantees that our poor and minority youngsters living in the inner cities will continue to be left behind. It is a promise to maintain the achievement gap in academic performance between rich and poor, urban and suburban, and black/Hispanic and white/Asian children. Here's the reason.

Today America has two public school systems, separate and unequal. One is for our affluent suburban children in places like Scarsdale, Lake Forest and Pacific Palisades. Parents pay whopping entrance fees of hundreds of thousands of dollars to send their children to these public school systems by buying homes in these wealthy communities. These school systems treat teaching as a profession. Recognizing their children's performance depends on the quality of their teachers, they pay far higher salaries than inner city schools. They also expect much more in teacher preparation. They ask their teachers to exhibit verbal ability, subject matter proficiency, and knowledge of teaching. With regard to teaching, they want their teachers to know about pedagogy, classroom management, child development, differences in how children learn, curriculum design, assessment of student performance, learning disabilities, educational technology and much more. Such school systems expect their teachers to come to the job with this knowledge. They prize the experience that comes from extended student teaching experiences and prior years of teaching.

For these school systems, the job of teacher is seen as something akin to the job of a doctor. It is not enough to have strong basic intelligence or verbal skills and mastery of basic science to be a doctor. The doctor is also required to have a first rate education in medicine, substantial clinical experience, and an internship before assuming the position of a practicing doctor. These schools expect the precisely same kind of preparation for their teachers before entering their classrooms. This is their definition of a highly qualified teacher.

The other public school system is that which operates in our inner cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, largely for poor and minority children. It treats teaching as a craft. That is, workers come with a rudimentary level of knowledge and they learn their craft on the job. Accordingly, salaries are low. The reality is that a growing proportion of the teachers being hired in inner city schools today are unable to meet state certification requirements. They lack adequate preparation and knowledge in their subject field and/or lack preparation and knowledge in education.

Secretary Paige's report is asking for change here. He is proposing that all people hired as teachers come to the job with subject matter knowledge. This recommendation continues to treat teaching as a craft. The experience that affluent suburban schools demand of their teachers is seen as unnecessary. The knowledge of education that affluent suburban teachers bring to the job will have to be learned on the job by others.
So what this means is not that our affluent schools will change their standards for teachers. They will continue to demand professionals who know their subject matters and how to teach. And they will be able to attract and retain such teachers.

What it really means is that for poor and minority children we are willing to accept something far less and call it a "highly qualified teacher." For them, "a highly qualified teacher" can be a rookie with absolutely no prior experience teaching or even time in a classroom. For them "a highly qualified teacher" is someone will learn about teaching only after he or she has begun to teach them. The research shows that such novice teachers have very high attrition rates in inner city schools. This should assure a continuing line of inexperienced and unprofessional teachers learning by trial and error and making their mistakes on the children who need the best teachers in the country.

This definition of the "highly qualified teacher" strikes me as almost Orwellian, like something out of the book 1984 , in which government tries to convince the public of absurdities like "war is peace." I know this was not the intention here. I deeply admire Secretary Paige for his work as head of the Houston schools. But in this case, his proposal is wrong and it will hurt most the children, who are currently lagging furthest behind, and desperately need "highly qualified teachers." Teachers who only know subject matter are not qualified to enter our classrooms, nor are teachers who only know pedagogy. Our children need teachers who know both. This duality cannot be reserved only for the affluent. Let's have the same definition of "highly qualified teacher" in our inner cities as in our wealthy suburbs. The future of our children and our nation depends upon it.

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