Not All Degrees Are Created Equal

I don’t hate teachers. To prove this, allow me to sing the praises of one public school teacher in particular to whom I give a great deal of credit for my better-than-average math literacy: Mr. W.

I don’t remember now why I happened to be in Mr. W’s computer lab that day towards the end of my freshman year of high school. What I do remember are the particulars of our first – and fateful – meeting. Mr. W asked me if I had enrolled in his tenth grade computer math course. I replied that I hadn’t because I had not received the requisite recommendation letter. “Which math course are you taking right now?” he asked. I told him I was on the Calculus track and was currently taking Geometry. “And what’s your average?” “97%.” The requirement for computer math was a B in first year algebra, so Mr. W’s response was immediate: “Well, let me go fix that right now.” Thus began our three year relationship.

My clients at work usually react with shocked surprise when I tell them the number of M&T courses I took in high school. In addition to the standard courses – Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II/Trigonometry, Functions/Analytic Geometry, and AP Calculus BC – I also took Computer Math, AP Computer Science, Discrete Mathematics, Elementary Statistics, and AP Statistics. I received 4’s on both the AP Calculus BC and AP Computer Science exams and a 5 on the AP Statistics exam. And why was I such an extraordinary math geek? Mr. W. It did help that he had such a funny personality, but I think it’s more important to point out that the man knew his stuff. Mr. W kindled within me a love for mathematics because he explained mathematical concepts in a way that was fascinating and eminently understandable. I’m not surprised that he was named Teacher of the Year just before his recent retirement.

Where did Mr. W get his vast store of mathematical knowledge, and how was he able to communicate that knowledge to the teens under his charge? He was a career-switcher. Before becoming a public school teacher in Virginia, Mr. W was an Army man. (Ah, the fond memories I have of teasing him on the days before the Army/Navy game! I used to write “Go Navy!” on the top of my test papers just to see how he’d respond.) As a soldier, Mr. W was called to use math, science, and technology on a daily basis. In other words, as a soldier, Mr. W received content-oriented training in the aforementioned subjects. And that made all the difference in the world.

The tale of Mr. W brings me to the central point of this post. One complaint I frequently hear from those who support Walker’s opponents in Wisconsin is that teachers earn less than others in the state who have college degrees and work in the private sector. Believe it or not, I do believe quality teachers should be rewarded with decent pay; indeed, if the state of Virginia had decided to pay Mr. W $100,000 per year plus benefits, I would’ve supported that move. But here’s the catch: I don’t believe most teachers currently receive the kind of training that warrants pay on par with the compensation college graduates receive in the private sector.

The left believes that if we just increase teacher pay, the quality candidates will flock to the school-house doors. But that does nothing to address the pervasive and damaging lack of rigor in our teacher education programs. So far, in my tenure as a private sector tutor, I have helped two elementary teacher candidates prepare for the Praxis — and in both cases, I discovered that their understanding of basic mathematical concepts was severely deficient. If you yourself don’t comprehend place value in the base-ten number system, how can you possibly teach it to twenty third graders? Granted, the plural of anecdote is not data. But quite a few studies back up my experiences on the ground. Such studies have found that, for example, teacher candidates seeking mathematics certification are held to standards that are wildly variant. The very best programs do teach content, but that is certainly not the norm.

One recent report noted, for example, that America’s prospective middle school math teachers spend an average of 40% of their training time on the actual study of mathematics, while the remaining 60% was devoted to general pedagogy and math-focused teaching methods. (In high performing countries, 50% of the curriculum is focused on the study of mathematics and 30% is devoted to studying how children learn math.) Moreover, this same study discovered that only 66% of middle school math teacher candidates take linear algebra, and only 55% take basic calculus. (In high performing countries, the figure is 90% or more.) “So what?” you may reply. “Middle school teachers aren’t going to be asked to teach calculus, so why should they be expected to learn it?” Because you need to know what’s coming next in order to adequately prepare your students for math courses they will take down the road.

If teachers really want to be treated like professionals, they shouldn’t put the cart before the horse. They should demand that they be held to standards comparable to those faced by other professionals before they demand professional pay. I initially wanted to go to medical school, so after I graduated from the College of William and Mary, I took the MCAT. The MCAT, for those of you who have never experienced it, is an all day test in which medical school applicants must demonstrate that they are proficient in reading, writing, physical science, and life science (and my overall score was competitive, by the way, though I was disappointed in my physical science sub-score). Now, I don’t think we have to go that far when it comes to education school admissions tests, but we should have something, and it should be designed to decisively weed out the idiots. Moreover, once teacher candidates clear the admissions hurdle, they should be offered a curriculum that is at least 50% content-based, and the classwork should be challenging. Let’s not waste our time with courses on how teachers can advance the cause of “social justice.”

Do you know what much of the public concludes when they hear Wisconsin teachers demonizing their duly elected governor as the second coming of Adolph Hitler? They conclude that Wisconsin’s teachers are historically illiterate — and given what goes on in our ed schools, such a determination is probably not that far off the mark. Teachers: You are not as educated as you think you are, and that’s why people resent it when you demand more compensation. No one is entitled to great pay simply because he or she has decided to work in the schools. You need to earn professional status the way doctors and lawyers earn it: through years of exhaustive study in demanding professional schools.

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