An earlier version of this essay appeared in educational Horizons 80,4 (Summer 2002) pp. 162 - 165

Highly Educated Teachers: is this what we need?

by Wade A. Carpenter, Ph. D.
Berry College

edited 4/4/09

This piece started out as a gag article to lampoon efforts at bypassing teacher education rather than improving it, and fixing the teacher shortage with short-timers rather than modifying the working conditions that cause the shortage. It was intended in the spirit of "A Modest Proposal." Horrifyingly, one by one the arguments started to make sense . . . kind of. President Bush recently pushed a major education package through Congress that demands "highly qualified" teachers who won't leave anybody behind, and then treating them well. I'm perfectly willing to believe he means it. But in the same package he mixed his messages by advocating alternative routes to certification. That's okay: colleges and universities have suffered mixed results for too long. But I do wonder how much the definition of "highly qualified" might be stretched and warped in the years to come. I'm afraid some politicians, sensing public ambivalence, will use back-door certification to admit unqualified individuals. Come to think of it . . . they already have. -- W.A.C.

In one of his skits the Mississippi comedian Jerry Clower remarked to an irritating intellectual: "Mister, you have been educated beyond your intelligence." Well, dear reader, if you are or have been a fully certified, long-term teacher, doing what the public demands in the conditions the public maintains and accepting what the public pays, this statement probably applies as much to you as it applies to me. After almost twenty-eight years of teaching, I've just about concluded that those who believe teachers do not need teacher education are more right than they know: maybe teachers don't even need college education.

Make no mistake, a doctorate in a subject field with a cognate in clinical psychology might not be enough for what the American people demand -- nurturing so thorough that past generations might have called it servitude and future generations might call it co-dependence. There is a heap of evidence to support high-level teacher preparation if we were serious about satisfying those demands.1 But what the public demands may be different from what it wants: maybe it really wants teachers simply to raise the test scores, raise the children, and take the blame. Ask any teacher: I don't need to "prove" this point; the burden is on anyone trying to disprove it.

Raising the Test Scores

It has long been taught by professors, professed by teachers, and parroted by politicians that most teaching is learned on the job, not in college. Well, one could argue, if trial-and-error teacher education is adequate, why not make it the law of the land? One of H.L. Mencken's zingers applies here, male chauvinism notwithstanding:

When the American pedagogue became a professional, and began to acquire a huge armamentarium of technic, the trade of teaching declined, for only inferior men were willing to undergo a long training in obvious balderdash.2

I saw a good example of such balderdash at a teacher education workshop awhile back. After an interminable series of (presumably) unpaid advertisements for inferior software and spurious online services, we were compelled to play cutesy motivational games that supposedly enable limited-English children to learn, all of which ended in a bizarre kind of group hokey-pokey. I'm sorry, but if we are denying teaching certificates to intelligent young people because they refuse to submit to four years of that kind of . . . balderdash, Mencken is right and we are wrong.

But maybe bypassing or even eliminating teacher education doesn't go far enough. For what the public really wants, teachers need only fluent literacy and an obedient attitude, and for that a high school diploma ought to pass as an acceptable resume. It is, of course, generally understood that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Could it be that for teachers, a lot of knowledge is very dangerous ... at least for career longevity? How much longer service might we get from marginally educated people unable to get anything better? Higher education always carries with it the ominous possibilities of better employment, so we may find that a truly captive teaching force is a better investment for a parsimonious public.Maybe the ancients knew something we don't.3

Is there any evidence that public satisfaction correlates with the education level of teaching force? Are there any "quality of life" ratings that include the level of preparation of the local teaching force? Do any municipalities mention the percentage of teachers with advanced degrees in their promotional literature? I've never seen it. But they do advertise standardized test scores, and raising them is not exactly rocket science. Good textbooks reinforced by lesson plans designed by a relatively tiny core of experts (e.g., National Board-certified?) could do that job nicely, and for a lot less money. With them in place a college education would be downright counterproductive for the inexpensive grammatici who would be staffing the classrooms: difficult pedagogical or moral considerations would just confuse the poor things.

We already have a multi-tiered teaching force here in Georgia, recently adding a whole new category of underprepared teachers: the "I" certificate. Exactly what the "I" stands for -- "interim," "intern,"or "imbecile" -- seems to be a matter of some debate. But maybe that's okay: if we continue to hire such people, an idiot-proof curriculum might not be such a bad idea.

Raising the Children

Has anybody else tired of hearing the "It takes a village to raise a child" banality -- which ought to be obvious to anybody who has ever tried to raise one -- misapplied to schools? Heck, a school is just about the last place I'd want to raise anybody's children, much less my own. One or two adults have a difficult enough time trying to raise just one or two children, so why should we expect teachers outnumbered thirty to one to do any better? It would seem the public does want the schools to raise the children -- but to what level?

Education professors blither that the schools should be preparing "self-actualizing" young people, and professors from other departments blather about liberally educated citizens. But if the public's definition of "raising" kids is more modest -- to raise the level of some and lower that of others -- minimally prepared teachers should do admirably.

Taking the Blame

This column has discussed what teachers are responsible for on several occasions, but this time, let's look for a moment at what we've been blamed for. Since I'm running out of space I'll just discuss two reproaches, one old and one new.

REPROACH: Dropout and truancy rates. This is a perennial complaint, which can lead to some peculiar reasoning: (a) The very best teachers can't teach the kids if the kids are not in school. (b) We don't have the very best teachers to begin with. Therefore, (c) all our problems are due to those uppity, incompetent teachers' inability to motivate our children. The public loves this reasoning because it absolves them of all the blame for their little brutes, and more important, it means they don't have to actually do anything about them.

RESPONSE: If we're asking about motivation, maybe we're asking the wrong question to begin with. It begs a number of more elementary questions, starting with: are truancy and dropping out necessarily bad? Could it be that not every kid belongs in school and that to keep some in is only an unkindness to them, to the teachers who have to baby-sit them, and to the other kids whose learning is hindered by them?

But since we don't want the problem kids out on the streets and certainly some teachers are fools, the simplest RECOMMENDATION would be: Get the computer companies to take the worst teachers out of the schools and hire them to conduct lots more workshops on high-tech cutesy motivational games and "responsive" teaching strategies.4 That way, we can simultaneously keep the problem kids amused enough to stay in school, distract liberals enough that they don't push for effective (but difficult) ways to help them, and please conservatives by getting the nitwits away from children and imposing them upon other teachers (who undoubtedly will put up with them) and professors (who undoubtedly deserve them). Then just replace the knuckleheads with recent high school graduates. Most of the young'uns will still be immature enough to be entertaining (I beg your pardon, motivating), and if properly controlled (sorry, mentored), they'll probably be less troublesome than all those snotty college graduates.

Don't be so shocked: in at least twenty-eight states, all that's required right now for substitute teachers is a high school diploma or a GED.5 Once again, with good textbooks and idiot-proof lesson plans, those kids should be perfectly adequate in the "I-teacher"ranks, as well. They do well at Mickey-D's, don't they?

REPROACH: "The number of schools with fast food franchises, sweetheart contracts with the soft drink companies, and multiple vending machines would surprise even the most jaded person," according to Kelly Brownell, a professor of public health at Yale University. She adds, "In some ways, the schools have become an agent for obesifying the American child."6

RESPONSE: This criticism may be new, and I've got to admit, I'm impressed. But maybe we can address the fitness problem without cutting into valuable test-preparation time simply by spending more wisely.

RECOMMENDATION: If we must spend money on schools, let's spend it on construction, which has a demonstrably greater economic impact than fast food or teachers. Our legislators should be delighted to spend the money on friendly contractors and cheap faculties rather than on overeducated teachers and overfed kids. The older kids would get much-needed exercise by providing a cheap labor force (just call it "service learning" or something equally simple-minded), and we would all thereby reap the benefits of smaller schools, smaller kids, and most important, larger profits for the contractors and larger campaign coffers for the politicians.

Although the proposals above may seem farcical (and I hope they still are), I've seen lots of ideas I considered impossible or even "in bad taste"one year become policy or even "best practice" not many years later: busing, condom distribution, metal detectors, technophilia, tobacco phobia, lottery funding, and full inclusion, to name a few.Overall, I've had a pretty good track record at predicting the preposterous, and in some cases, I too have come to believe in them. Maybe we shouldn't resist; maybe we should just sit back and watch the "I" teachers foul up . .. and educate our own children privately.

A more serious postscript and invitation, after reading the galleys of Frederick Hess's "Tear Down This Wall" featured in this issue of educational HORIZONS 80,4 (Summer 2002):

In spite of disagreements with some of the premises and logic of the author's argument, I too am for breaking up the ed school monopoly. Any time we loose incompetents on the schools, children will be hurt, and higher education has turned out too many incompetents for too long. Frankly, if ed schools can't provide better teachers than the alternative routes, we ought to be disestablished. Nevertheless, I still think the wiser approach is to improve teacher education. I fear that the proposals made seriously by Dr. Hess and sardonically by me may be adopted and implemented in the most "cheap and dirty" versions imaginable. Although I am not convinced that better teacher education will solve our problems, I am convinced that weaker teacher education will not solve them. For all their faults, ed schools and certification processes do make it considerably more difficult for fools to enter the teaching force. I don't believe Dr. Hess's proposals have adequate safeguards . . . but then again, we don't have adequate safeguards now, either. -- W.A.C.

1. Basmat Parsad, Laurie Lewis, and Elizabeth Farris,"Teacher Preparation and Professional Development: 2000," U.S. Department of Education: National Center for Education Statistics, <>, 2001; Linda Darling-Hammond, "Reforming Teacher Preparation and Licensing: Debating the Evidence," Teachers College Record 102, no. 1 (2000): 28 - 56.

2. H. L Mencken, in Minority Report: H. L. Mencken's Notebooks, Knopf, < mencken.htm>, 1956.

3 H. I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1956).

4.On problem kids, see Michele Norris,"Booked for Hooky: Florida City Jails Parents of Truant Students,", < ntnorris_truancy020228.html>, February 28, 2002.

5.Michele Norris,"TeenageTeachers:Schools Are Lowering the Bar When Hiring Substitute Teachers,", < DAILYNEWS/wnt_substitute_010403.html>, March 4, 2001.

6. Ephrat Livni,"Less Gym, More Junk Food:Experts Examine Rising Childhood Obesity Figures,", < dailynews/obesity_kids000912.html>, December 12, 2000.