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Roadblocking the Best and Brightest in Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

On May 16, 2012 Dr. Thomas Brush, Professor and Associate Dean for Teacher Education at Indiana University and my dissertation director, posted the following exclamation of surprise and alarm on FaceBook.

(You can read the full text of Tom’s letter and the White House reply here)

His message was in response a White House reply to a long letter he had written about the ways in which education policy, particularly testing and unrealistic expectations for teacher candidates, are creating a roadblock to getting America’s best and brightest college graduates into public school classrooms.

What has gotten this seasoned teacher educator so riled up, and is there truth to his claim that government policy is preventing some excellent potential teachers from entering the profession?

A Bureaucratic Nightmare
Here is a summary of the points that Dr. Brush made in his April 26, 2012 letter to President Obama:

  • Teacher morale is at an historic low.
  • The current administration has supported many policies and "fads" that are no more effective, or that are less effective, than the current education system.
  • Testing companies are making millions of dollars by creating new and unnecessary measures of teacher readiness (in Indiana three new tests are being developed to determine teacher candidate readiness).
  • The testing requirements for teachers are out of alignment with the standards needed for individuals to enter other fields such as business.
  • These policies imply that those who educate prospective teachers are not qualified to determine candidates’ readiness to enter the profession.
  • These policies, excessive requirements, and lack of deference to the experts who know best, are discouraging America’s "best and brightest" students from entering a profession where they are needed.

Brush then relates a story of a meeting with a recent teacher of the year for the State of Indiana, whom President Obama has met and publicly acknowledged as an exceptional teacher.  This well-respected educator explained how she sees new regulations as discouraging to potential teachers:

"She then went on to elaborate how many of the new "rules and regulations" regarding teacher evaluation and teacher preparation were discouraging young people from even considering teaching as a profession. I have encountered similar sentiment from prospective students and their parents with whom I interact. Is this what we want to strive for? Relegating the teaching profession to one in which the successful completion of a series of tests is the method for entering the most noble profession?" (Brush, 26 April, 2012)

Why are there so many bureaucratic roadblocks to the teaching profession? The answer would seem to be that these tests are a way of providing quality control, but the effect seems to be quite the opposite according to Brush and the teacher quoted above. Is the assumption that only the worst students elect to become teachers, harkening back to that old motto: "Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach?" Even if that were the case (which I heartily do not believe), wouldn’t that more likely be a symptom of the system described above than a cause?

Perhaps this obsessive testing is a bit of vestigial sexism, as women have historically been those charged with early education of children? Do policymakers inherently distrust female teachers, and is this red-tape-riddled system a way of furthering this prejudice and extending it to all young people? That would seem to be one possible reason for not trusting those within the system to judge what the qualifications for teaching should be.

Why Don’t We Trust Those Who Know Best?
The most telling point from Brush’s letter, and one that describes much of the problem with the political and public perceptions of education, is that: "The implementation of this system implies that we, experts in our field who have devoted our lives to help individuals attain the noble goal of becoming educators, are obviously incapable of assessing whether students we work with continuously for two or more years are ready to be good teachers." (Brush, 26 April, 2012)

This tension is also reflected in a recent post by education historian Diane Ravitch, who examined two recent surveys of teachers that revealed a fundamental disconnect between what they (teachers who spend every day in schools) believe is good for education and what politicians and policymakers believe education needs (Marquis, The Battle Between What Teachers Know & What Politicians Want, 4 May, 2012). It seems that at all levels, there is a conflict between what politicians and educators believe should be happening in education. Unfortunately, until we have a cultural shift which makes education and educators more respected, the balance of power is likely to remain in favor of politicians.

In his letter to the President, Brush urges the administration to consider these issues and to engage in dialogue with those who have the best insight into what education and teacher training need – teachers and teacher educators:

"I urge your administration and your Department of Education to seriously consider the ramifications of the policies you are promoting and supporting at both the federal and state levels. If you truly are committed to recruiting the “best and brightest” into the teaching profession for the long term, I have first-hand knowledge that your current policies and the way they are interpreted at the state level are not providing any incentives for this population of students to enter the profession, and in fact are serving to hinder the recruitment of these students. I welcome any dialogue you or your staff would like to have on these issues. Thank you for your time and your consideration of these issues." (Brush, 26 April, 2012)

Unfortunately, the form letter reply that Brush received from the White House seems to be an indication that his pleas have fallen upon deaf politicized ears. That explains his frustration and his eagerness to have me cover this issue in a public forum. Mr. President. If you are listening, teachers everywhere would love to talk to you about what education really needs.

Add your voice to the plea for educators to be heard in the debate about education on Google+ and Twitter @drjwmarquis.