by Dan Kennedy
The American system of universal public education is one of the noblest experiments of the twentieth century, but our leaders have problems staffing it. Their Sisyphean curse is to spend half their time wringing their hands about the shortage of teachers who meet professional qualifications and the other half of their time adjusting those qualifications to make them harder for teachers to meet. This dichotomy is frustrating not only for the leadership but also for teachers who must meet changing expectations, students who must learn from those teachers, employers who must hire those students, and parents who must view the whole process through the inadequate lenses of their own educations.
In a well-meaning attempt to safeguard the quality of mathematics instruction, the system has always placed hurdles in the paths of prospective teachers. In 1973, I discovered that I was several education hours short of qualifying for state certification in mathematics. This led me to an independent school that accepted me as a guy who knew some mathematics and who had a desire to teach it. I believe now, as then, that a knowledge of mathematics and a genuine desire to teach it have always been the only qualifications truly essential to the job. Many people disagree with me on that point, noting for comparison's sake that an understanding of anatomy and a genuine desire to perform brain surgery do not qualify someone for a career as a brain surgeon. This point is moot when you apply it to teachers.
The marketplace reality that somebody must teach the students has forced us to staff today's classrooms with thousands of people having no more credentials than a knowledge of the subject and a desire to teach it. In fact, many teachers lack even those two qualifications: either they lack the mathematical background, or else they desire to teach something else. More tragically, some teachers have the background and desire to teach mathematics but believe that they no longer know the subject because of the changes wrought by technology and various reforms. In this environment, it is difficult to see how anything good can be accomplished by raising the bar for teachers. Instead, we should be showing teachers how to jump higher. For more than forty years, the Advanced Placement (AP) program has been demonstrating how teachers can jump higher. No credentials are required for becoming an AP calculus teacher; one simply needs a knowledge of calculus and a desire to teach the course. To these basics, the College Board wisely adds two things that make all the difference: a well-defined course description and an ongoing program of teacher development. Teachers who wish to teach the course seek and find the needed help through workshops, summer institutes, College Board publications, collegial organizations, Web sites, and vigorous networking. Thousands of such teachers have reached heights that they never dreamed possible—not because a bar was raised but because of their desire to teach AP courses.
The success of the AP model has not gone unnoticed by the educational establishment. State and national leaders are fomenting the spread of AP courses throughout the land. Meanwhile, the College Board is trying to extend this model to encompass pre-AP mathematics through such programs as Pacesetter and Mathematics Vertical Teaming. As with other AP courses, the only essential qualifications to teach these new courses are a knowledge of mathematics and the desire to teach it to others. Since economic realities will continue to dissuade people with the former qualification from having the latter, we should logically make it easy for those who have both to become teachers. Giving them clear expectations and the opportunity for ongoing learning will empower them to take it from there.
|Dan Kennedy, Dan_Kennedy@baylor.chattanooga.net, has taught at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, since receiving his Ph.D. in mathematics at North Carolina in 1973. He has conducted College Board workshops for high school calculus teachers for more than 20 years.