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,
journals, etc.).

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
subject matter.

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.