Changing education standards without lowering the bar

Feb. 9, 2011, 2:33 p.m. | By Claire Koenig | 11 years, 6 months ago

Maryland's requirements for teacher education are set too high for realistic results

One of the greatest educators of all time is a high school dropout. Temple University awarded him his bachelor's degree based on "life experience” after he had started working toward his master's degree, and his PhD dissertation was titled "An Integration of the Visual Media via ‘Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids' Into the Elementary School Curriculum.”

Although Bill Cosby was not the best of students, his educational programs inspired thousands of inner-city students across America to break societal stereotypes and live confidently. Of course, most degrees in education aren't acquired by flunking out of the tenth grade three times and writing theses about cartoons, but the diploma wasn't what made Cosby an effective teacher. It was his personality, his humor and his passion for teaching. These qualities are what distinguish the great teachers from the good ones, and they cannot be learned from a college course.

Maryland is one of a dwindling number of states to maintain the requirement that new teachers must obtain a master's degree in education or complete a Maryland Approved Alternative Preparation Program (MAAPP) within ten years of achieving a teaching license, or they are let go from their teaching positions. But as is obvious in Dr. Cosby's success, higher education does not guarantee higher-quality teachers. Master's degrees are luxuries that many people cannot afford, and Maryland shouldn't turn away potential teachers just because they are unwilling to take on additional student loans for a degree that many education experts say is unhelpful in classroom situations.

As more students apply, undergraduate college tuition skyrockets and student loans loom overhead. The view from graduation day for potential teachers is already daunting: Some face student loans of over $120,000, which they are expected to combat with a beginning teaching salary of only about $37,000. The income will increase with time, just as the loans will lessen, but it still makes for a rather under-stuffed financial cushion. And Maryland requires that potential teachers drive themselves further into debt in order to learn the methodology of a profession that they have studied before and have been practicing for a number of years.

Some schools offer to pay desirable teachers' way through their education, giving potential teachers a scholarship so that they will come teach for the school. But schools need thousands of taxpayer dollars to put a single teacher through a master's program, which is money under-financed schools could spend on new classroom materials or facilities. If the master's requirement were annulled, then schools that are cutting arts funding or slashing supplementary academic classes could bring these programs back into focus.

As it is, this money spent on supplying additional teacher education is being wasted. There is little evidence to suggest that higher degrees make better educators, and even education experts say that most teacher education master's programs are not sufficiently preparing teachers. A 2009 study conducted in Baltimore County by the National Council of Teacher Quality found that there was no correlation between teachers with higher degrees and students with higher test scores.

No wonder, as Katherine Merseth, director of teacher education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told The New York Times at an event in Washington, D.C., in March, that only about 100 of the 1,300 graduate schools of education were doing a competent job; the others "could be shut down tomorrow.” And if that's not enough, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a press release in 2009 that said that teacher education programs in America are doing "a mediocre job” of preparing students for the 21st century, and that they required immediate reform.

Teachers are exciting when they are excited about their course material. Learning can be contagious when teachers want to learn more and then give the information to their students, but this drive for knowledge can't be taught at a university. Education degrees give teachers the methods to clearly convey material to ensure that students have the basics required in their subject to pass, which is incredibly important. But an education degree does not give teachers the advanced knowledge of their specific subject material or the enthusiasm necessary to be engaging educators.

An advanced degree doesn't make a bad teacher, but it can distance a teacher from his or her craft. If too much time is spent speculating about how students learn instead of getting them to learn, the MCPS school system will be left with educators too far removed from their students to teach them much of anything.

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