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2510 Hamilton Avenue ,Baltimore , MD 21214 .Tel: 443-744-5328

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Making the Teaching Profession Respectable Again

By Leon Botstein

Published: July 26, 1999

No amount of effort to improve the quality of our schools will succeed unless we end up with better teachers. Yet, despite glimmers of renewed interest among students at elite universities, the most gifted and talented college students are not choosing teaching as a career. Indeed, the level of interest reported in 1999 is well below that expressed in the 1970's, when teaching ranked far below medicine, law and business.

Before 1960, America could rely on sex discrimination, since teaching was perhaps the only profession genuinely open to women. The women who might have become teachers in generations past are today investment bankers, doctors and lawyers.

Furthermore, before World War II and particularly during the Depression, teaching was a respectable white-collar profession for children of immigrants. But the children and grandchildren of those teachers are not in the classroom today. When was the last time any parent expressed the hope that his or her child would grow up to be a schoolteacher?

The recruitment of talented teachers is hampered not only by comparatively meager levels of pay, but also by the fact that teaching carries little prestige. Many people still believe that teachers don't work hard. After all, they seem to not work a full day, and they have the summers off.

Even the education bureaucracy doesn't treat teachers as professionals. Teachers have little control over subject matter or method of education. Much of the curriculum is driven by mandatory, dull tests that impose so-called standards. Classes are too large; all too often, keeping order is itself a full-time job. In many city schools, there aren't enough teaching materials, textbooks or basic lab instruments. Who would want to enter such a profession?

Amid this sad state of affairs is a historic opportunity. More than a third of teachers working today are expected to retire during the next decade. Given the surge expected in the number of schoolchildren at the same time, the need for new teachers will be greater than even in the 1950's, when the baby boomers were children.

To recruit a sufficient cadre of new teachers, we must make teaching prestigious by breaking the tradition of teacher education and certification.

Teaching has failed to gain respect because our education schools have defined their subject matter as pedagogy. America organizes its teachers horizontally, according to the age of the pupils they teach. No other advanced industrial society trains teachers primarily in methods targeted at specific age groups.

Right now, a sixth-grade English teacher works with a sixth-grade math teacher more often than she does with first-grade reading teachers, high school English teachers or English professors. This method is justified by dubious precepts of age-appropriate educational science.

Instead, we ought to educate and organize teachers according to the subject matter they teach. The high school mathematics teacher and the elementary school mathematics teacher should be taught by mathematicians and consider other mathematicians their colleagues.

But that isn't what's happening. Education schools are segregated from the rest of the university and looked down upon by other departments. Look at any university catalogue and you will find a physics department, a math department and a music department. Look further and you will find a separate school or department of education with independent programs that have their own faculty and curriculums in science education, math education and music education.

Right now, fewer than 65 percent of new teachers have either a major or minor in the subject matter they teach. Nearly a third of all teachers today teach subjects in which they have no formal training. More than half of all students studying physics in high school are taught by teachers who had neither a major nor a minor in physics.

These grim statistics don't even show the full extent of the problem. Most teachers who boast master's degrees and undergraduate credits in a subject have received them in education schools. As a result, they learn how to teach a subject instead of learning the subject itself.

Our universities and colleges have relegated the training of teachers to second-class enclaves in which the industry of education has flourished. We should disband the education schools and integrate teacher education into the core of the university.

This would place teacher training under the aegis of the graduate schools of arts and sciences. We should eliminate the bachelor's degree in education and require teachers to have a degree in a subject other than education, and preferably in the subject the person intends to teach. Although this requirement may seem most apt for high school teachers who teach specific subjects like chemistry, elementary school teachers need depth of knowledge as well.

Nothing is more difficult than teaching fundamentals. A serious command of knowledge is necessary to impart basic ideas in subjects like mathematics or music. Classroom teaching skills can be taught in apprenticeship programs after a B.A. is completed, and on the job with close supervision.

And states should abandon the current standards of teacher certification. They reflect a historic collusion between schools of education and state legislatures. This alliance has remained in place because of the eagerness within the academic community (among scientists, historians, English professors and their colleagues in other departments) to avoid involving themselves in the preparation of classroom teachers. Indeed, if teaching is viewed with disdain outside the walls of the university, it is regarded at best with a certain condescension on our campuses.

Paradoxically, there are few professions that promise as many rewards and as much satisfaction as teaching. If the right steps are taken to equip teachers with genuine expertise in a subject matter, the profession of teaching may begin to command respect. Then, perhaps we will be willing to give teachers the autonomy and responsibility we grant doctors and lawyers.

Of course, a drastic shortage of teachers may improve pay and teaching conditions all by itself. But why must we be content to fill our classrooms with poorly qualified individuals whom we have to pay more?

We must quickly turn the fast-approaching teacher shortage to the advantage of our children by providing well-educated teachers whom we honor and trust because of the quality and rigor of the training they have been asked to complete.

Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, is the author of ''Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture.''