There’s been lots of hand-wringing lately about a teacher shortage in the United States, but there is a bigger and far more serious education crisis in this country that practically no one is talking about. The fact is, too many teachers now working in our schools lack sufficient training, and it is incredibly important that we start a national dialogue around this crisis because the mediocre education our students are getting as a result is impeding America’s ability to compete in the global economy.
Compared with students in other countries, Americans aren’t measuring up. American students who took the most recent Program for International Student Assessment exams, or PISA, scored 17th in reading, 27th in math and 20th in science compared with their peers around the world. Only 9% of American kids scored in the top two levels out of six in math. Last week's announcement that SAT scores had dropped to the lowest level in a decade is further proof that our education system is moving in the wrong direction.
Across the country, employers cannot find skilled workers because our schools are doing a terrible job of educating their students. The United States used to be the world leader in technological innovation. Now, a whole host of countries have surpassed us: Finland, Switzerland, Israel, and Japan, with many others coming up the ranks.
This educational neglect has weakened our country. It is hurting our economy and our children’s futures. And the primary victims are kids from low-income, minority families. When it comes to educational equality, the United States lags behind nearly every other industrialized nation. We condemn millions of our children to failing schools, dooming them to perpetuate the cycle of poverty that has trapped families for generations. In fact, African-American males are twice as likely to be unemployed as white males, and half as likely to earn a college degree.
It’s easy to blame the kids – poverty, single-parent families, etc. – but school isn’t really about the children, it’s about the adults, and the adults in our classrooms aren’t getting the job done. No wonder there’s a backlash against the Common Core and standardized tests: They tell the ugly truth about the quality of our schools, and the teachers and unions don’t want to hear it.
Student performance is a mirror, and teachers need to look into it.
If America is going to be able to compete globally and get our standing back, we need to rethink how we teach our teachers.
In order to teach effectively, teachers must have mastery of the subject matter; you can’t teach what you don’t know. Most education schools give mastery short shrift in the belief that technique trumps all. Not so: Learning is fundamental to schooling, and teachers cannot be truly committed to educating children if they themselves are not actively studying and learning.
Students learn best through engaging, inquiry-based, child-focused lessons that let the kids do the hard working of thinking. But guiding children toward discovery, letting them do most of the talking and allowing them to try, fail and conquer challenges is difficult. It takes nimbleness and flexibility to be able to respond to students in the moment and lead them to deeper understanding. It takes thorough preparation.
To understand what works and what doesn’t, teachers need to analyze data and student work. Knowing where a child’s weaknesses are empowers teachers to adapt instruction to the needs of each student.
At the same time, constant analysis of their own classroom performance makes for better teachers. Teachers, like athletes, need to practice, but repeating the same lackluster performance over and over won’t lead to improvement. Feedback from principals, real-time coaching and support from peers help teachers hone their technique and become more effective in the classroom.
To achieve this high level of education, Success Academy provides intensive teacher training during the summer, continued professional development once school starts – the equivalent of 13 weeks every academic year – and frequent collaborative planning sessions so no teacher feels she has to sink or swim. It was a program developed out of necessity, because the fact is, our education schools are failing to produce capable, effective teachers who are ready to deliver high student outcomes the moment they enter the classroom.
If we want to truly reform education in the United States, we must fundamentally reform how we train America’s teachers. Innovative approaches like those employed by small organizations such as Success Academy to create better teacher training programs should be viewed as a model for achieving this important goal.
We all know that strong teachers make a tremendous difference – maybe the greatest difference – in educational outcomes for children. As a country, we need to abandon the old, failed methods and instead foster programs that are improving teacher preparation and producing dramatic gains for children.