As I sat through the panel on “Innovations in Teaching” at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin this past weekend, I noticed one basic yet questionable assumption under which everyone was operating as well as one glaring omission.
The assumption is that higher education currently has the capacity to adequately prepare our teachers for success in the K-12 classroom. However, anyone familiar with the “Peter Effect” knows that one cannot give what one does not possess. Our education professors cannot impart to their students the content knowledge and pedagogical skills needed for effective teaching if they themselves do not have the knowledge or skills in the first place. Studies show that teacher educators themselves often lack the knowledge and skills to effectively teach and deliver research-based instruction. This happens for two reasons: (1) the gap that exists between relevant, applicable research being conducted and that same research finding its way into the classrooms of teacher preparation programs, and (2) tenured professors failing to stay up to date on research, instead continuing to teach their own outdated research year to year.
Further, professors with research grants often “buy out” some or all of their teaching responsibilities, and as a result, many, if not most, undergraduate courses end up being taught by adjunct faculty, lecturers, or graduate assistants who lack preparation time, program familiarity, and the in-depth experience with educational research that would allow them to know, understand, and pass on cutting-edge, research-based, instructional techniques.
Legislators and administrators have further weakened the system by (1) tying funding to graduation rates but to no other accountability measures, (2) lowering admission standards, and (3) relying overmuch on online learning—sacrificing quality for quantity. Institutions have become so focused on goals apart from student learning—their central mission—that lobbying legislators for more taxpayer dollars, supporting collegiate athletics, and erecting bright, shiny monuments to learning have become the primary focus. Instead of blaming our teachers for not adequately preparing our kids for college and the “real world,” why don’t we start holding teacher preparation programs accountable?
This leads me to my second point: The glaring omission from this panel was the often-feared term in public education—school choice. I routinely listen to teachers complain about pay, work hours, administration, class sizes, curriculum, students, parents—the list goes on. I know the majority of teachers have their hearts in the right place and want to help every kid succeed, but these teachers raise some very important concerns about our educational system. Yet, whenever school choice is brought into the conversation, these teachers demonstrate that they have been so indoctrinated by the education establishment (administration and unions) that they believe choice will only make public education worse.
However, as numerous studies and real-world examples prove, school choice is a proven method to reform K-12 education. First of all, school choice is about basic free-market principles: competition, limited government, and freedom. If you place accountability with parents and not government bureaucrats, you create competition. Contrary to what opponents of school choice preach, competition makes everyone better! Competition will make the schools better; it will make the teachers better; and most importantly it will make the kids better!
If parents are able to choose the school (or program/curriculum) that best fits the needs of their child, then both they and the child will be happier. More-involved parents will lead to greater student success. With more choices for students come more choices for teachers as well. Grand Prarie ISD in Fort Worth, Texas, has embraced school choice and has experienced a very interesting side effect: the district is able to save over $300,000 a year on substitute teacher costs, because full-time teachers are taking fewer and fewer days off from work—because they are once again happy teaching! When we no longer regard our profession as merely “work,” concerns about hours and pay begin to dwindle. Furthermore, as the free market tells us, competition will force schools to start paying teachers better, for two reasons: (1) they must pay well to attract good teachers, who will in turn attract parents and students, and (2) money spent in the classroom is the best way to achieve success and compete. As a result, we should start seeing a reduction in administrative personnel and costs, alleviating yet another problem with our educational system.
To bring this full circle, as schools and teachers begin to compete, they will begin to demand more rigor from professional development programs, state teacher certification examinations, and our institutions of higher education, forcing education professors to focus on teaching teachers how to teach most effectively. True innovation in teaching would be to require our institutions of higher education to adequately prepare future teachers to teach future generations.