Teachers in the New Capitalism

After reading my first post about the effects of the New Capitalism on education, Liz kindly sent me this article on the changing conception of career with regard to teaching from the Phi Delta Kappan. As I had mentioned before, onece upon a time, people choose a job for life. Indeed this is the case with the retiring class of teachers today, but those who are replacing them fall into three categories: the lifers, the explorers, and the capstoners. The first group wants to stay in teaching for a long time; the second sees teaching as a springboard to other things, but are still serious about education while they’re there; and the third have already done other things, are probably late along in life, and want to retire into teaching. In 2001 it was projected that we’d need about 2.1 million more teachers than we already had by 2010. I’m not sure what the numbers are now, but I’d find it hard to believe that many qualified, elementary and secondary school educators just walked onto the scene. So it’s important that we invite and make use of all three types of people. The trick, then, is how to keep them once we’ve got them, and how to make them into good teachers.

For a moment, let’s pretend that the new lifers, the teachers who decided in third grade that what he wanted to do was teach, went to a teaching school, has full certification, and loves and wants to teach forever are the standard. [Of course I take great issue with the way math teachers are trained; but for now, I’ll hold those gripes aside.] The explorers aren’t sure they want to teach long-term, but they know they want to teach for a few years. These are the folks programs like Teach for America and the Massachusetts $20,000 signing bonus for new teachers—article on its limitations here—are after. I’m a bit weary of this lot. Most of them don’t stick around; many know that they’re going on to graduate and med school after a few years. They don’t have the time, experience, or training to be good teachers. And while they are usually very serious about their work, the reality of the situation is a bit bleak. After two years of working for Teach for America, volunteers bring raise their students on average from the 14th percentile the 17th. That’s not an awful lot. Even if we pick our teachers from an newly graduated, Ivy-league educated pool, studies have shown that merely being an expert in your field doesn’t make you an expert teacher in your field. [This is shocking, I know.] That’s why pedagogical training is so important. Knowing the facts is one thing; knowing how to teach those facts is another.

Likewise, the majority of capstoners lack any formal instruction in teaching. What’s worse, they often can’t afford the time or money to enter into a certification program. If we’re going to keep either of these groups around for the long haul, and to attract more into the lifers’ group, we need to train and support our fledgeling teachers. As I’ve said before, less than one percent of school budgets go to professional development nationally. Even then, programs like Programs in Professional Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education focus on upper-level administration, not on entry-level teachers. Of course, there aren’t that many places to spend money on training. Many advanced courses—graduate level classes in history, science, math, etc.—are taught during the day and require full-time attention. And these classes are not designed with teachers in mind: they’re for the serious academic, and so, don’t pay much attention to the difficulties presented by the specific subject content. [This body of knowledge is called content pedagogical knowledge; you can’t teach chemistry the same way you teach art history. The fields are not the same, so your approach to them shouldn’t be the same.] here just isn’t an infrastructure to support our educators.

For a long time it was assumed that the problem lay in attracting new teachers. But in light of the New Capitalism, we see that the real problem is retaining new teachers. We can keep them longer if we give them better facilities, higher wages—these tactics work and are employed just about everywhere—but something we have systematically denied to teachers, something we’d expect in any other field, is the a chance to grow professionally. Before the New Capitalism workers climbed up and down the ladder. In education, the analogue is weak if present at all. We have long expected a classroom teacher to stay in the classroom, to teach the same material year after year, in approximately the same way—repeating the cycle mechanically each fall. It’s no wonder technology zealots believe they can automate the learning process, sending our kids to computers. Society has long held his opinion.

Of course, professional development has the added bonus of continually raising the abilities and therefore qualities of our teachers’ instruction to their students.

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