Before getting into the meat and potatoes of today’s post, I just want to offer a plug for tomorrow’s education forum entitled Before & After Katrina: Black Education in New Orleans. The one-day forum will be held at Tulane in the Lavin-Bernick Center from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and will feature several distinguished guest lecturers. The event is free and open to the public, and I’ll be there so it should be a party. Moving on.
So I’m doing my regular pre-bedtime Facebook check when I receive an e-mail from my grandfather informing me of a must-read article that Malcolm Gladwell, writer extraordinaire, published in The New Yorker magazine back in December 2008. Entitled “Most Likely to Succeed,” the article asks the following question about teachers: how do we hire when we don’t know who’s right for the job?
The problem with identifying good teachers, Gladwell finds, is comparable to that of identifying potential NFL quarterbacks. No matter how good a college quarterback looks in his Heisman trophy days, no matter how well he scores on the Wonderlic Personnel Test, the fact of the matter is that for quarterbacks, the college game is so different from the pro game you simply don’t know who is going to succeed. This is largely how it works for teaching as well. While our educational-reform efforts generally push for higher standards for teachers, including higher test scores, completion of graduate degrees, and more certifications, these academic and cognitive requirements for entering the profession offer little insight into how well a person will succeed in the classroom.
Now, Gladwell’s article offers some interesting points on how we might go about cultivating a better teaching force. For sure, his thoughts are important. But his comments lead me to consider a something he does not really address. It would seem to me that if academic qualifiers do not provide any indication regarding how well a person can teach, then it stands to reason that perhaps it is not only our standards for entering the profession in general that must change, but also our standards for entering traditional teacher preparation programs specifically. Consider the following: The student population enrolled in our nation’s public schools is more diverse now than ever before, and the number of African American and Hispanic students in our classrooms continues to rise. At the same time, those students continue to achieve at levels far below those of their white, middle-class peers. As this is occurring, the number of minority teachers teaching in our schools is falling. This creates two problems: 1) minority students lack role models from their own communities who could show them that there is a place for them in schools; and 2) teachers lack professional peers who could be a source of information on how to connect to minority students. It is clear, then, that our teacher preparation programs need to be making strides to recruit minority students into their ranks so that we might start cultivating a teaching force that reflects the students it serves.
From how I see it, the problem here comes in the form of academic standards. If a majority of our minority students are not receiving the education they need from public schools, then one can conclude that these students may have a very difficult time getting into undergraduate teaching programs and/or succeeding in them. However, if these academic qualifications are arbitrary to begin with, indicating very little about the ability of these candidates to be successful teachers, then perhaps admittance into teacher prep programs should change to reflect such a reality. Such reform might include lessening the emphasis on academic qualifiers (GPA, test scores, etc) and increasing the importance of factors that reveal applicant character (i.e. commitment, passion, and interpersonal skills). The idea is that by opening the field to more people, particularly those individuals from groups that are underrepresented in the profession, we might be able to build a stronger teaching force that can teach diverse student groups and teach them well.
Of course, this is not to say that just anybody should be considered for the job of teacher just because they express interest. However, it is to say that perhaps we are not doing everything possible to create the highest quality teaching force possible by limiting who can enter programs based upon apparently insignificant academic standards. Just a thought.
Again, education forum tomorrow. Hope to see some of you there!