Monday, March 31, 2008
Ask the Administrator: What About Teaching High School?
A longtime reader writes:
I'll be starting a Ph.D. program
in History in the Fall. I know the risks, and I took
three years after I got my B.A. to decide whether
academic life was really that important to me. In the
meantime, though, I've done a number of different
jobs. Most recently, I've been substitute teaching in
a few local school districts.
It's given me some opportunity to think about
teaching, and high school teaching in particular. As I
see it, a serious problem with secondary education in
America is that, broadly speaking, there is too little
cross-pollination between high schools and the
academy. There's very little contact between teachers
and professors, and teachers by and large don't have
access to good academic resources (libraries,
Quite obviously, this isn't the most serious problem
facing secondary education in America, but it does
make for a more stultifying environment in most high
schools than really needs to be. I spent a year (as a
student) in a German Gymnasium, and the difference was
striking. I don't think you get as many time-servers
in Gymnasia, and German teachers have a greater
likelihood of actually being deeply involved in their
The reason I'm writing, though, is that it seems to me
that there is a simple, bureaucratic change that might
improve the quality of teaching in U.S. secondary
schools: more alternative licensure. Given that so few
good jobs are available in American higher education,
and that secondary education in America is so weak, it
would seem logical to make teaching at the secondary
level an option for folks who have a Ph.D. or are ABD.
As it stands now (in [state], and I believe in most other
places, too) you need a Master's in Education in order
to teach at the secondary level (or you need to be
working on it, if you've just gotten out of a B.A.
program in Education). If you just spent six or seven
years in graduate school becoming an expert in your
field, you are not going to want to go back to school
right away for another two. (I realize that there are
some people who do this, but they are a very small
It's clear that, as with community colleges, there are
a number of academics who would never even consider
teaching at the high school level-- which is too bad.
High school teaching can be frustrating, but it's also
a completely different, interesting set of educational
challenges. Students ask much broader questions, and,
unlike college students who pick a discipline, high
school students are more deeply concerned with the
relevance of what they're learning. It can be very
refreshing. And once you land a job, the pay is
reasonable and the benefits are pretty good.
Is there something I'm missing here? Is there some
compelling reason that alternative licensure hasn't
been opened up already for academics? Or is it just
the strength of teachers' unions and bureaucratic
I've long wondered about the chasm between the K-12 system and higher ed in America. It hits me most directly when we try to do 'dual enrollment' programs with local high schools. We've tried several times to run our classes onsite at local public high schools during the after-school hours, charging only cc tuition and offering transcripted (and therefore transferable) credit. (We've found that lots of colleges use AP or IB scores mostly for placement, as opposed to credit, but will give actual credit for transcripted college courses.) The leadership of the high schools is almost always excited at the prospect, the students say they want it, the parents say they want it, and even the teachers' unions are okay with it as long as it's after school. Then nobody signs up.
The one district in our service area where we've been able to make it work, revealingly, is the one district where we've been able to get an external benefactor to pick up the cost of tuition. Absent that, the courses flop. This despite the fact that the very next year, most of the students to whom the courses were offered will freely choose to go to colleges that charge far more per credit than we do, and take the exact courses they could have taken with us for far less.
Economically, it's insane. But there's a kind of compartmentalization that parents have adopted uncritically that leads them to assume that K-12 is, and should be, free, and college is, and should be, expensive. So the same parents who balk at our tuition for a high school senior will pay triple that the following year, for the same course, and do it without complaint. We're left scratching our heads.
That compartmentalization shows up in lots of little ways. High school teachers are teachers; college teachers are professors. High school teachers identify with their districts, often to the point of jumping from one discipline to another as needed (like the gym coaches who teach math); college professors identify with their disciplines, often barely even acknowledging the institution that actually pays them. High schools are tightly regulated and 'standardized' to death; colleges are still largely free to set their own standards and policies.
And yes, high school teachers have to take 'education' courses. College professors don't, unless that's their actual discipline. As I've mentioned before, the extent of my pedagogical training in graduate school before leading my first class consisted of being told, “you'll be fine.” I was, eventually, but that first semester wasn't always pretty.
I've never seen a thoughtful theoretical justification for the abrupt divide. My suspicion, and I'll admit that I haven't studied this systematically, is that the chasm is the result of historical accident, compounded by momentum.
If we were serious about building a coherent education system, for example, we would have aligned high school graduation requirements with college level entrance requirements a long time ago. Instead, embarrassingly large chunks of cc instructional budgets are dedicated to re-teaching stuff that was supposed to have been learned in high school. This applies even to brand new graduates, just a few months out of high school. (We also would invert the teaching pyramid in colleges, so that the remedial and intro classes would be the smallest, and taught by the most experienced instructors. Instead, we throw the most vulnerable students into the least supportive environments. My 'you'll be fine” section, characteristically, was an Intro course.)
We'd also take a fresh look at how we teach, how we define disciplines, and what we expect students to be able to do when they graduate. And yes, we'd ask questions like “why is it so hard to find good high school teachers, especially when colleges are turning away prospective professors by the metric ton?”
To get to the narrower point, I know that some states, including my own, have adopted “alternate route” certification programs for people with degrees in other fields, and that those programs have become astonishingly successful. I also can't help but notice that private high schools that don't require teaching certifications seem to do pretty well, though there are obvious issues of self-selection and economic class at work there.
My guess is that an influx of folks with high-level subject matter training into the ranks of public high school faculty would almost certainly be a good thing. I read somewhere – folks who know this stuff are invited to comment – that one of the strongest predictors of student performance in high school was the verbal SAT of the teacher. I don't know if it's true, but it sounds right. Exposing our kids to high expectations, backed by solid academic training, isn't the worst idea I've heard.
Good luck with your explorations.
Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
1) Yes, there's a strong correlation between teacher's SAT and student achievement.
2) No, student's need of remediation cannot uncritically be laid at the feet of 'failure to align/teach appropriate content,' because while I might 'teach' it, that doesn't mean that the students learn it or retain it for more than 2 weeks.
3) But, to the larger point... Getting a doctorate is about becoming a subject matter expert who focuses on 'how to do research in that field.' In high schools, if you want to be a good teacher, there is virtually NO time to think about research.
I am in class 25 hours a week, grade homework daily, collect major assignments from 20 students about once a week, fill out report cards 4x year, progress reports 4x year, ...
It's not that Phds would make bad high school teachers, but it's a question of choices, if you've just spent 5 years preparing to do research in a specific field, would you then want to give it up in favor of thinking about 'why John didn't do X?'
4) In Mass to become certified all you have to do is have a BA (any subject) and take a couple tests, no required education classes... Other states are similar. It's not a case of making the bar too high for entry (here at least), but it's not a choice that most newly minted researchers would make. It's too ingrained to look for 'academic' employment and, as DD and others have noted, teaching is systematically devalued in research universities...
However, the reason it worked was precisely because students weren't on the high school campus. To try and create an atmosphere on a HS in which a student can genuinely do college level work is difficult: students are taking too many classes (under the WA Running Start program, each five credit, one quarter class replaced a year long HS class; I suspect that HS administrators expect their college-class taking students to still be in class all day), are still dealing with the ridiculous politics of HS life, etc. Of course you aren't going to get many students taking college classes at their high schools.
It is for very similar reasons that I suspect we don't see more PHDs teaching at high schools: their schedules are less flexible, their teaching is micro-managed in comparison with college courses, and they have to deal with kids who are even more prone to disruptive behavior than college students. I have many friends in my PhD program who have already taught HS, and they come to grad school in the desperate hope of never having to go back.
Is it? At many schools (like my R1 employer), the tuition maxes out at 12 credit hours (the definition of full time).
So unless the student takes enough CC courses to reduce the number of full-time semesters enrolled, the CC courses will not reduce their time to graduation and cost spent.
Of course, this is through the lens of a prospective full-time student and their parents. Practically, I think neither the student not the parents really think this far ahead.
My "high achieving" high school (definition: 92% of my mid-80s high school class went to a 4 year college) had a community college that actually used our school to teach classes at night. The students and parents definitely had, in hindsight, an implicitly elitist attitude towards those courses and that CC.
I probably did too (that was 25 years ago, before I knew so many of those PhDs)
- I agree with Mthgeek that the PhD is a research degree, and the corollary of that means that many people who get that degree don't necessarily see high school teaching as the career path for them. For me, I care deeply about teaching (and I do teach intro courses, as do all of my tenured/t-t colleagues - it's a myth that professors at all 4-years don't do this - and I actually really love teaching first year students, so my reasons for not having really considered high school teaching don't have much to do with the age/maturity of who I'm teaching in all my classes).
- The reason I didn't consider teaching HS a serious option was because I didn't want to have to deal with parents, I didn't want to teach the same 12 books for my entire career, and because I wanted to be *more* than a teacher in my career - I wanted to be a scholar, too. If I'd wanted to be a teacher, I'd have done my BA in such a way that I could do so without graduate school as a prerequisite. My best friend from HS is a HS teacher, and we talk a lot about the differences between what we do and the ways in which each of us would suck at the other's job. There really are different skills and talents required for high school teaching and college teaching. Obviously some translate, but I do think it's worthwhile to note the differences.
- As for DD's question about why HS students might not take advantage of CC offerings, I can only speak from my own experience. Such an option was offered in my last year or two of high school, and I didn't do it because 1) since it would have been just one or two courses at a time, I'd not have been eligible for financial aid - the cash for the courses would have had to be out-of-pocket, which my mom couldn't afford, and 2) I was heavily involved in activities and worked and was taking a full course load, which meant that if I wanted to be a well-rounded person and sleep sometimes, that option just wouldn't have been a positive one for me. Sure, it may have saved money in the long run, but I think that there's value in letting high school students be high school students without adding that pressure, or at least there was value in that for me. Education isn't just about getting through coursework as quickly and cheaply as possible - there can be value in taking one's time.
Is financial aid an option for the courses taught on the HS campus? Because I would not be able to pay tuition for my daughter to take a CC course in HS, no matter how fair the tuition was, without financial aid. The tuition may be higher when they get to college, but there's generally an accompanying financial aid package.
The problem I've encountered, apart from the obvious weirdness of having to pay for more school -- even after teaching full time for 10 years -- is that secondary education tends to not be too excited at the prospect of Ph.D.s filling their ranks. Administrators and boards don't want to be put in the position of having to pay for the extra credentials, and teachers unions feel threatened -- remember the stink they threw up when M.A.s became mandatory?
It's a shame. Even though the Ph.D. may be a research degree, the fact is many of us could and would make excellent teachers. No, it wasn't our first choice of careers, but when the door to higher ed. is so clearly closed, locked, and without a key ...
That said, I think more collaboration and communication between scholars in the academy and public school teachers would be hugely beneficial for both.
When I was in high school I chose to rearrange my schedule so that I could take intro courses at the local CC in Calculus and Biology. It cut a year off my college degree and gave me transferable units that I could use towards my major (unlike the units I got for my AP classes which only counted towards non-majors classes and thus were rendered meaningless).
I was able to do this because my high school teachers were willing to shift my schedule around to accommodate my courses at the CC each semester. The CC was within biking distance from the high school so I was able to get there without a car and I had an understanding with the campus cop that I could leave for my CC classes even though we were a closed campus. If the courses I took had been offered after school I would not have been able to attend because I had swim practice and then had to take care of my siblings at home and make dinner before my parents got home from work. My evenings weren’t exactly free. I worked on weekends.
If you want students to take your CC courses, you will have to offer them during the day preferably as a replacement for one of their high school requirements. I'm not sure I understand the concern about tuition since our local JC costs only $20 a unit – perhaps it is more in your state? Another potential roadblock: You'll also have a hard time pushing this if it doesn't boost the student's GPA the way an AP class would - we have one high school in our area that does give credit towards graduation and an extra grade point to students who take a CC class and many of the upper level students use that to boost their GPA.
If he were trying to get hired today, he would not be qualified to teach in the state of Georgia. He is also not considered "highly qualified" by NCLB.
When I moved for my husband's job, just out of school and fired up to save the world, I attempted to teach in our local failing K-12 district (with two graduate degrees). However, I'm not qualified to teach in the state of Illinois unless I pursue around 30 hours of collegiate courses for licensure. I was also not eligible for alternative licensing, because in Illinois you must have been WORKING for five years "in a field where you use your degree" before you're allowed to pursue alternative licensing.
So all of the bright young freshly-minted BAs, freshly-minted everything elses in Illinois are FORBIDDEN from teaching unless they're willing to go back to school (and pay for it) to get certified (which typically takes around 18 months, depending on the program) OR they're willing to wait five years before they see if the alternative licensing program will accept them. By then, chances are they're happily doing something else and don't want to go through the dislocation to start over at a drastically lower salary.
(I'll be eligible for alternative licensing in two years, but I'm quite happing teaching CC classes.)
I don't discount what education to teach can do -- mother mother is an M.Ed., a junior high school teacher, and a damned fine one. But I think it's no secret that a lot of "teaching" programs turn out "educators" with a lot of theory (much of it crap) and little background in any subject matter. And I think it's no secret that some people are simply natural teachers who could probably be a classroom star with a summer's worth of specific training on classroom management, curriculum planning, etc., and ongoing training through in-services and so forth. Particularly at the high-school level, where content becomes far more critically important (whereas at the K-5 level, I can see the importance of being highly trained in teaching specifically).
We're at $75/credit hour now, going up to $82/credit hour in the fall (for in-district students, which works out to $246 for a 3-hour class come fall), at the CC where I teach, and we are among the lowest CC tuitions in the state.
(Not because we're particularly virtuous or have good aid packages, but because we're in a lower-cost-of-living, and therefore lower-cost-of-operation, area.)
Additionally, that same HS had recently started a program that allows HS students to take classes at the local CC, and the HS picks up at least the tuition (if not the books as well). Students can also take online courses from a variety of universities. A few years in, it's really helping bridge the divide between HS and college for some folks who wouldn't make it otherwise, but it's also creating a weird brain drain effect: The smartest students are spending all day at the CC, which has at least two downsides that I can see: A) It's removing most high-achieving students from the classroom, which affects the capacity of students to learn from each other. B) Many of the students who are utilizing the program come from families who could afford to pay for college anyway, and I would rather see students targeted who have the academic scores but not the financial resources.
Interestingly, this program (called "Beyond LHS") allows students to defer graduating from HS for a year to just take CC classes and have the HS pay for it. I think that's a great idea, since it does an even better job of bridging that gap between HS and college for many students.
Great post and great comments. I've had trouble finding anyone else to talk to about this in my little corner of the world =)
And yet, I can't teach in the public schools here without another degree that mostly covers material I already know. I wouldn't mind a scenario where I could start teaching while getting the degree, perhaps one class during the school year, more in the summer. Or perhaps a scenario where I could "test out" through a combination of the tests they already require and a quarter/semester of student teaching to assess my ability in the classroom. I could see these scenarios being applicable only to those who hold subject matter advanced degrees. And of course, private/independent schools have none of these requirements and seem to be doing just fine.
I do think about jumping to hs teaching every once in a while, but I'd like to do it in a public school since my kids are in public schools and I feel like I should contribute to that system, but the barriers to entry are just too high. What a shame.
Sad but true.
Teaching college didn't prepare me for all the distractions of teaching high school!
Now, what I'm describing is the independent school world. I wasn't willing to consider public HS teaching (though a public school graduate myself and proud of it) because I didn't want the rigmarole of either certification or standardized testing.
I've become quite the evangelist for independent HS teaching as an attractive alternate career path for PhDs.
Students who took multiple CC classes didn't fit in with the CC population at all. Where they might have ok with a traditional undergrad population--where they would have been only a few months younger than most freshmen--they had almost no interaction outside the classroom with the significantly older students in their CC classes. At the same time, they were missing out on significant portions of their HS experience. CC classes meant more homework and less opportunity for extra-curricular activity, and I remember one friend who missed his Prom--or a least a big chunk of it--because a CC faculty member wouldn't or couldn't offer an alternative for a final exam scheduled during a 4-7 Friday evening exam block. To an HS senior, that's a Big Deal(tm).
The question of why faculty can't cross-pollinate, though, it a question I've often asked myself. The answer, as near as I can tell, is "red tape." It's only an issue for public schools with state licensing problems. I know many newly-minted Ph.D.'s who teach in private schools, sometimes for extended periods of time, while waiting for post-docs or tenure track positions to open up in their fields. I also a number of people on the other side: career HS teachers who moonlight as adjuncts at local 4Ys and CCs for extra money, or just to keep their hands in and participate in a faculty. Foreign language teachers from private HS seem to be the prime candidates for some reason.
The idea that the divide is the result of the Ph.D. being a research degree is out of date. In the humanities, at least, the Ph.D. today is just teaching licensure with no paedagogical training attached. It is the piece of paper colleges look to as proof that one is qualified to teach a 3-3 (or 3-4, or in extreme cases, 4-4) load, and nothing more. Sure the departments want us to do research, but, with the exception of a short sabatical every few years, we're expected to do so entirely on our own time. And the degree itself is devoted primarily to becoming a subject area expert in a given field, so that one can teach it after graduation. Real support for research skills is normally limited to a single field-specific "research methods" class.
In the best case, research skills accrue s a by-product of the Ph.D., in the worst case, in spite of it.