First Person

Teacher Certification: What About Doctors and Lawyers?

I believe that our current system of teacher certification requirements could be greatly improved.  I think we should focus more on competency exams and less on required coursework, especially if that coursework has a questionable relationship to teacher effectiveness.  Also, I think we should liberalize the ability of high-performing schools to make exceptions to any coursework-related certification requirements.

When I debate this issue, perhaps the most common questions revolve around comparisons to doctors and lawyers.  Would you go to a doctor who didn’t go to medical school?  Do you think lawyers shouldn’t have to go to law school?  Here are some of my thoughts on these questions.

1. In general, I don’t have the option to see a doctor or lawyer who didn’t go to professional school.  (Lawyers, in a few states, can be admitted to the bar without completing law school, but this is uncommon.)  Before the 20th century, I would have had more choices, but movements lead by the medical and law schools and by professionals who were concerned with excessive competition have managed to eliminate almost all alternative routes.  (I recommend “The Social Transformation of American Medicine” by Paul Starr and “American Law in the 20th Century” by Lawrence Friedman for the gory details.)  Here is some advice from one well-known lawyer who couldn’t afford law school.

2. If I had the choice, for the near future and for most matters I would use doctors and lawyers who went to well-regarded professional schools.  I can think of two reasons for this.  First, based on my experiences, the well-regarded professional schools accept talented applicants and educate them in a manner that seems valuable to me with respect to providing the services I am interested in.  Second, the free markets have not been given a chance to develop alternative preparation routes that I might prefer from a consumer standpoint.  It could turn out that a program with the same exams, less coursework, and more apprenticeship could be better, for example.

3. For some matters, I would be happy to use lawyers and doctors who didn’t graduate from well-regarded professional schools.  For example, if I wanted to prepare a routine contract, I could probably save hundreds of dollars by avoiding an expensively-educated lawyer.  If I wanted a simple medical test that I felt I could interpret myself, I would try to avoid the cost of compensating an expensively-educated doctor.  For what it’s worth, I think this lack of flexibility is one of the big cost problems with our current medical system.

4. For the next four points, I quote from Diane Ravitch, who wrote an excellent short article called “A Brief History of Teacher Professionalism”.  “Both law and medicine have a specific body of knowledge that the future member of the profession is required to learn… There is persuasive evidence that those who have this knowledge are more effective than those who lack it.  This was not the case in education…”

5. “Both law and medicine have well established research-based standards and procedures… This is not the case in education, where pedagogues have debated what to teach, how to teach, how to test, whether to test, and which research methods are acceptable.  Because of this lack of consensus on even the most elementary procedures, teachers have received a constant din of conflicting signals from the leaders of the field.”

6. “… [G]raduates of law and medical schools have always known that they must pass an external examination in order to be licensed in their field.  In education, however, the leaders of education programs sought to eliminate external examinations and to replace them with their own credentials.”

7. “… [A]dvances in medical sciences have clearly resulted in better health for the American people.”

8. Many parents send their kids to private schools which don’t have education school requirements for their teachers.  This lack of a coursework requirement doesn’t seem to be a public policy issue.

9. Consumers can generally choose their doctors and lawyers.  They can also “fire” their doctors and lawyers if they are not happy with their service.  Doctors and lawyers often depend on referrals for a majority of their business. Consumers can sue their doctors or lawyers for malpractice.  These consumer choice factors put a check on the efficacy of professional schools.  In general, public school parents don’t have a similar choice.  (Charter schools and other forms of school choice are, of course, changing this dynamic.)

10. In general, the government doesn’t operate medical practices or law firms.  The private sector management provides another check on professional school efficacy.  Doctors, for example, can be fired from medical practices.  The government-run schools have a much less efficient incentive to provide this check.  In fact, it often seems that the government incentive is to avoid providing a check.

11. Doctors and lawyers are represented by professional associations, not unions.  Teachers unions, unlike the AMA or bar associations, rigidly control compensation and other employment matters in a manner that reduces the differential value amongst competing professional schools.  In other words, union contracts greatly reduce the useful competitive dynamic amongst education schools.

As always, I hope readers (including teachers, doctors, and lawyers!) will help to improve my viewpoint on this matter.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.