The latest issue to be caught up in political agendas is teacher quality. I'll start with teacher incompetence and the tenure issue—not because it's the greatest problem in teacher quality; it is not. But even one incompetent teacher is too much for the children she teaches, the parents she faces, the members who get her students in subsequent grades-and, frankly, for the good of our union.
So let me state unequivocally: We believe all students have the right to a high-quality teacher, a teacher who both knows her subject matter and how to teach it, who both cares about children and knows how they learn. And we believe that the union has a responsibility to help ensure that the members of our profession meet high standards.
But the idea that ending tenure-eliminating due process for teachers—is the way to ensure a quality teaching force is ludicrous.
Teachers are entitled to fair dismissal procedures—to protection from arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable dismissals. Moreover, children and the public also need to be protected from schemes to replace competent, experienced teachers with unqualified but cheaper labor—or someone's relative.
The fact is, this nation doesn't have to choose between teacher quality or the individual rights of teachers, which also protects teacher quality. We need to do both. We can do both.
So let me propose a partnership on behalf of teacher quality. Because we can't do it alone—and political and school officials have certainly demonstrated they can't do it.
First, instead of capitalizing on dismissal proceedings that are time-consuming, costly, inefficient, and more adversarial than professional, let's streamline them and professionalize them, as we've already done in a number of states and districts. Let's use these model laws and contracts.
Second, instead of blaming seniority rules for all the ills of the world and proposing to give principals sole discretion over hiring, let's treat teachers as professionals and involve them in the hiring process. Instead of trying to end rules established to protect against arbitrary and capricious decisions, let's make sure that a teacher's qualifications and demonstrated fit with a school's educational philosophy or program are what count. We have such schools. We have contract language that achieves this goal.
Third, instead of capitalizing on lousy, top-down teacher evaluation systems that make it too easy to get tenured, that are indifferent about teachers who are falling down on the job and offer no assistance to teachers who need help, let's negotiate a peer-review and intervention program. Because believe me, no one is more knowledgeable and rigorous about teacher performance than first-rate teachers!
We pioneered peer review and intervention. Many of our locals are doing it. It works, not only in our eyes but according to the experts on teacher evaluation. Yet negotiation is a two-way street, We can't ram even the most effective programs down management's throat; believe me, we've tried. Let's negotiate.
Fourth, instead of allowing new teachers to sink or swim, let's set up teacher internship programs. They work. Yes, they cost money. But those costs are nothing compared to the cost of the talent we lose in the first, difficult year of teaching because no one is there to help. Those costs are nothing compared to the education that's lost to children when the new, struggling teachers they happen to have are sinkers rather than swimmers.
Fifth, let's make schools learning communities for teachers, as well as for students. Provide for master teachers, teacher centers, real professional development in the schools—with time for teachers to work with one another to overcome children's learning problems as they come up.
My last point is really the first. Because our teacher quality problem is far more of a future problem than a current one. Our teaching force is "maturing." We are on our way to replacing two million teachers. Who will these new teachers be?
We've seen progress on more rigorous licensing standards. Now, we also have advanced certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Those high standards are beginning to be reflected in teacher education and licensing requirements, including testing for new teachers. Teacher quality is on everyone's mind, as well it should be.
But so long as state and local education authorities continue to issue emergency credentials and to misassign teachers into subjects they are not qualified to teach, higher standards will be a fiction.
So let me issue my final challenge for a partnership on behalf of teacher quality: Instead of blaming teacher unions for policies we didn't create and don't defend; instead of blaming us for mistakes we didn't make and don't defend in hiring, promotion, or tenure, end emergency credentials and the misassignment of teachers now! Let us end politics as usual as we face preparing and hiring two million new teachers.
You know, there are people who want to do away with standards for teachers altogether, who mock the need for teacher education and for licensing requirements, who consider certification a desire on our part for bureaucratic control—nutty as that may be. They like to tell us that teaching standards are keeping brilliant historians out of our schools, or retirees from the military and aerospace industry, or Warren Buffett, or—my personal favorite—Albert Einstein.
By the way, I don't see any of the folks who say this lining up to teach in our public schools.
Well, Albert Einstein just happened to be a proud and active AFT member. And he would have been the first to tell us that, when it comes to teaching children, it's simply not enough just to know your subject matter well; you also have to know how to teach it to children. It's not either/or; the two go hand in hand.
Einstein also would have pointed out—not just because he was a good union member, but because he also had common sense—that if you want qualified math or science or other teachers in our schools, you'll need to pay them.
Isn't it curious that those who love to talk about markets and about competition never talk about a competitive salary, a fair market price for teachers?
Now, the AFT is on record in support of good alternative certification programs. We also want to see standards in the traditional route raised. We like to see retired military folks in our schools; in fact, we proposed such a program to Congress, and it's in effect. We like to see poets and artists in our schools. And we welcome scientists and mathematicians now working elsewhere into our classrooms.
But they, just like other teachers, ought to demonstrate that they know their subject matter. They, even more than new teachers—who at least have had student-teaching experience—ought to be under the supervision of expert teachers during their first year of teaching. And, if they decide to make teaching their career, they, just like other teachers, should demonstrate that they know how to teach—not for our sake, but for the sake of their students.
But really, isn't all this talk about John Hope Franklin or Warren Buffett or Albert Einstein being kept out of our schools because of teaching standards just a red herring?
Let's face it, every profession and trade has licensing requirements, from doctor, lawyer, architect, or accountant to plumber and cosmetologist. Don't our kids deserve standards, too, for the people who serve them? Doesn't the public's interest in education need to be protected just as much as the public’s interest in health or in buildings and bridges that don’t fall down?
Isn't the real story, the one no one wants to talk about, a story about how, in districts where attracting teachers has become a chronic problem, alternative certification doesn't get us many geniuses or poets or even a modest number of Teach for America kids?
The truth is, in places that have the toughest conditions and pay the least—translation the schools serving our poorest, neediest children—teaching standards aren't the problem. The problem is the chronic undermining of those standards through "emergency" credentials and misassignment of teachers to classes they aren't trained to teach. That's our teacher quality problem!
Let's face it. Emergency licenses and teacher misassignment have created a structural teacher quality deficit in this country. And this ought to be taken as seriously as the budget deficit has been.
And the elimination or lowering of standards for entry into the profession in any school, including charter schools or voucher schools, can only make it worse.
So let me repeat my challenge to state and local education authorities: If you're really serious about teacher quality, stop undercutting even the standards we have now. Stop creating and perpetuating a structural teacher quality deficit into the next century. This school year, put an end to emergency credentials and the misassignment of teachers.
This is not a proposal lightly made. Because if it is implemented, we would have a crisis in many schools. I should say, a more visible, more difficult-to-deal-with crisis than we have at present. Because we would have many classrooms throughout some of our cities that go not only without teachers, but without babysitters. And the structural teacher quality deficit would be shamefully exposed.
But we cannot allow this problem to continue. And we cannot allow state and local education authorities, and others, to get off the hook with talk about how they can't precipitate a crisis. As I said, this already is a crisis, especially for our neediest children.
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So, to avoid any excuses—and because it's the right thing for us td do—I also call on our affiliates and on our members to to help get through such a crisis by negotiating ways to accommodate the additional shortages until qualified teachers are found.
Here are some examples of solutions that can be negotiated:
One, offer incentives to experienced teachers seeking to retire so they will stay longer.
Two, offer flexible scheduling and part-time teaching to retirees or teachers who are presently on child-care leave.
Three, offer incentives for teachers to become certified in an additional field, such as a shortage field.
Four, make sure that the liberal arts graduates, the retirees or career-switchers from other fields, and others willing to teach—the historians and Einsteins—take and pass entry-level exams that regular teachers are required to pass. And then provide them with training before they practice on kids. We can help.
Five, have them, and all new teachers, be mentored by master teachers. Many of our contracts already include such programs.
Six, ask qualified teachers now working in shortage areas to voluntarily take on additional classes with appropriate additional pay, of course. And give teachers the autonomy and flexibility to arrange classes of different sizes among themselves. Many contracts already provide for this.
Seven, recruit paraprofessionals with college credits and offer more support for them to obtain teaching credentials.
Eight, put qualified supervisors and administrators into the classroom.
Nine, allow the parents of children in classrooms without qualified teachers to transfer their children to another classroom or public school in the district that has enough qualified teachers.
Ten, find a way, in this upturned economy, to raise teachers' salaries, particularly where they are lowest, to put the profession where it belongs in a hierarchy of values—to show that education matters, that children matter in America.
Let us stop the forays and skirmishes over demonstrably ineffective and conflict-producing measures, like meaningless recertification or threatening teacher due process rights, or seeking union-free environments or vouchers for a few.
Let us provide what, the millions upon millions of children need and deserve in America—free and equal access to high-quality public education.
This is my challenge to those who run public education-the state and local officials, the boards of education, the superintendents—and to our own local and state unions:
Measure every school by the highest standard: Would I want my own child to be there?
And, in addition to all the other school improvement efforts we are making and working on together—high standards, good discipline, that work—together, let's take this basic step: Enforce high entry standards into the teaching profession, so that as we face the next century, the children of America—no matter their parents' wealth, no matter the wealth or status of their 'neighborhood—have truly equal access to this essential element of a good education: well-educated, qualified teachers in their classrooms.
Sandra Feldman is president of the American Federation of Teachers. This article is taken from her keynote speech to AFT's 1998 Convention, July 17, 1998.