What Does / Should it Take to be a K-12 Teacher?

If you follow K-12 education news, you probably heard the buzz in May/June 2015 about a portion of the proposed 2015 Wisconsin state budget bill that addresses requirements to become a K-12 teacher, although this will almost certainly be changed before the budget is passed (7/3/15 update – this portion of the bill was significantly softened). Currently, to get a Wisconsin teacher license, one needs to earn a bachelor’s degree, complete teacher education training, and pass a series of tests; among other things. The training focuses upon verifying expertise in content areas knowledge and teaching. In Wisconsin, training to become a teacher is focused upon ten standards. You can think of these as ten questions we ask before licensing one to become a teacher.

  1. Do you know the content / subject that you want to teach?
  2. Do you understand child development on how that impacts teaching and learning?
  3. Do you have knowledge about how students learn differently, and how you can design learning experiences that accommodate those differences?
  4. Do you know how to leverage various strategies and technologies to facilitate learning that helps students develop new knowledge and skills (including critical thinking and problem solving)?
  5. Do you have the necessary knowledge and skill to manage a classroom effectively? This involves student behavior, fostering a positive culture of learning, and designing for student engagement.
  6. Do you have strong communication skills?
  7. Do you know how to design various lesson plans based upon the content area, the specific students, the community and context, and the curricular goals?
  8. Do you know how to design and use formative and summative assessments to track and help students progress?
  9. Can you engage in reflective practice that allows you to continually grow in your effectiveness as a teacher?
  10. Can you foster positive and ethical relationships with colleagues, parents, and other stakeholders in the community?

With the wording in the proposed budget, many have expressed concern that these standards are no longer a requirement. A bachelor’s degree would be necessary to teach core subject areas like English or math. However, a college degree would not necessarily be required to teach courses outside of the core. And the wording would seem to diminish the need for going through a formal teacher education program in more cases. In addition, each school district would have the responsibility to make sure that they hire people who are competent in the content areas and with other knowledge and skills deemed important to teach in that district. This leaves room for different standards to become a teacher in different districts.

The stated intent of the new wording was to provide more flexibility for rural districts when they struggle to find qualified, licensed teachers for certain content areas. Consider a school needing someone to teach biology and there was a retired medical doctor in the community who was willing to help out? Under this change, that would be allowed, granted the district deemed the doctor qualified. The same would be true for having a local artist teach art class, a mechanically minded person to teach a shop class, a computer programmer to teach computer programming, an owner of a local photography business to teach photography, the maestro of the city orchestra to teach band, or a ballerina to teach dance class.

Scan the news and the dominant responses to this proposed change range from concern to outrage, with only a few outspoken voices in the media and blogosphere in favor of it. Is this another attack on public education? Is it a statement of mistrust or disrespect for teachers who met all the standard requirements by going through a teacher education program? Is the passing of such a bill the certain demise of Wisconsin public education and student performance in schools?

I work at a University and while I don’t teach very much these days, my faculty rank is in a school of education. I know the hard work that faculty put into developing future teachers, and I’ve witnessed students growing in competence and confidence as they relate to the ten standards/questions listed above. As such, I am an advocate for a teacher education system like our’s that clearly and consistently helps people become effective teachers.

At the same time, I see great opportunity in having a system that allows room for maestro’s to teach band, a Martha Stewart to teach home economics, CEOs with MBAs to teach business class, artists (many perhaps with MFAs) nurturing young creative minds, and skilled dancers and dance instructors teaching dance. As it stands, you could have a PhD in physics from MIT who has a record of effectively teaching children, but she would still be deemed “un-hirable”to teach physics in most public schools. Someone like this may or may not meet the ten standards listed above as they are currently measured, but what if we got creative about this?

I’m not convinced the current wording in the Wisconsin state bill is the best way to go about it, but I want to take this as a chance to challenge my assumptions and explore the possibilities. What if districts hired some teachers with such backgrounds provided they go through a summer crash course followed by ongoing professional development that deepened their knowledge and skill related to the ten standards? What if they were paired up with teachers or coaches who did have the formal training, who could provide coaching and assistance to these other teachers? There are so many other possibilities as well. These people may not be as equipped to help students with different learning disabilities or many other important aspects of teaching in a K-12 school, so whatever creative effort would undoubtedly need to take this into consideration. Yet, if we scan the routes to teaching across the United States, in both public and private schools, we see that there is clearly more than one way to go about it. Why not explore the possibilities?

It certainly seems like today’s formal education system too often becomes more focused upon regulations, prescribed learning pathways, and standards than creative exploration of how we can devise safe but the most engaging and stimulating learning environments for all young people. The fact is that parents have already expressed an openness to let their children be taught and guided by people who have not gone through a formal program demonstrating that they meet the ten standards listed above. Parents send their kids to dance lessons, content area tutors, martial arts classes, music lessons, city leagues for various sports, Vacation Bible School, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, independent schools that sometimes hire teachers deemed qualified but without a state teaching license, foreign language lessons, riding lessons, chess club, and hundreds of other educational settings; and we typically don’t take issue with the fact that the “teachers” in these contexts usually don’t have the training that includes all ten areas mentioned above resulting in a formal teaching license. We even send our kids away to summer camps and multi-day summer experiences to learn robotics, what it would be like to be an astronaut, how to cope with anxiety, and dozens of other things. We send them to driver’s education classes with people who often don’t have K-12 teaching licenses. We want to know that our kids are safe, in good hands and with competent teachers; but most parents don’t demand a uniform license for all these “teachers.” Yes, this is different from formal schooling, but these are all part of a young person’s formation and education.

The wording in the bill appears dangerous to the extent that leadership on the district level lacks the competence or conviction to assess applicants for teaching positions and hire only people who are qualified. If there are school leaders who are willing to carelessly hire people who lack evidence to work effectively with young people and others, then the wording in the budget is a huge problem. Of course, that also seems to beg another question. Why would we allow school leaders like that to remain in their position? After all, having a teaching license doesn’t necessarily assure that a person is an effective teacher or that one has maintained current knowledge and expertise in the ten standards. That needs to be assessed by the people hiring the teachers in the first place. Without local accountability, everything else falls short.

Please don’t confuse my openness to explore the possibilities with support for the current wording in the proposed Wisconsin budget. Something like this is not best thrown into a bill without widespread conversation with all key stakeholders; including parents, teachers, school leaders, board members, and the broader community members. Nonetheless, I’ll use this as a chance to stretch myself to consider the possibility that there are better ways to go talent management in the public education system.

Isn’t it just a little strange that we have a system that would label Einstein or Feynman as unqualified to teach high school physics? Being brilliant isn’t necessarily the key to being a great high school science teacher. At the same time, as a parent, I would love to have my kids learn from Feynman, a physicists praised for his skill as a teacher. In fact, ironically, we do have such a system today, even in Wisconsin. It is called dual credit programs. Get this. If you are a University professor with no high school teaching license, students can take a college class from you that also counts as a high school requirement. You get college and high school credit at the same time, and from a teacher who does not meet the requirements to teach high school. Go figure.

My point is just this. The current wording in the bill misses the mark, and we need a better way to have such discussions. Yet, I still contend that it is a great discussion to have. Let’s use this a chance to have a rigorous, substantive conversation about the role of teachers and talent management in K-12 education. Let’s prove to ourselves that this is not about self-interest or self-preservation, but that we are genuinely and deeply committed to devising the most engaging and impactful K-12 learning communities possible.