In the United States, only 23 percent of new teachers are drawn from the top third of our college students. But in higher performing countries, the majority of secondary school teachers come from the top third of their college graduates. Achievement of students taught by such quality-selected teachers is extraordinary. In Finland, well over 90 percent of high school graduates attend and complete college—twice the U.S. completion rate.
“Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and Retaining Top Third Graduates to a Career in Teaching” by McKinsey & Company was just released in September. It examines the highly selective teacher preparation programs in Singapore, Finland and South Korea. When you have more high-performing college students become public school teachers, a much higher percentage of their high school students successfully complete college. And top-notch high school science teachers increase the numbers of students pursuing science careers.
A teacher needs to be a solid model of academic rigor, honesty, and work ethic. It is hard to convince a young student to complete schoolwork with quality effort if the teacher does not exhibit that ability. High school teachers must have a passion for their field that makes it the most important subject for their students to learn, whether it is literature or math or art or biology.
University research professors continue this inspiration with graduate students working in smaller groups focused on creative learning experiences. The bottom line is that Kansas needs to place our students face-to-face with the best minds that we can put into classrooms, from kindergarten to graduate school.
But current academic indicators, from the number of K-12 schools that did not make AYP to university enrolment figures, reflect mere bean-counting. This is not only irrelevant to quality education, it is a major cause of the decline in American academics.
At the university, we keep an eye out for young college freshman who are so excited about the biology they are learning that they cannot wait to get back to the dormitory to tell their roommate about it. I try to recruit these young scholars into secondary biology teaching. Instead of being limited to narrow science research, as a teacher they can share their excitement for all new biology developments with the next generations of students every day of their career.
But when these scholars switch to a science teaching program, they soon take methods courses that accurately lay out the teach-to-the-test programs that are distorting American education. These young scholars want to excite kids about science, not drill them for tests and push paperwork. Many switch back to other science professions. Both the Bush and Obama administrations seem clueless about this harmful aspect of No Child Left Behind: it has driven many of our best future teachers away from the teaching field.
Boards that govern our higher education institutions appear just as clueless. In releasing the enrollment numbers of Kansas regents institutions, absolutely no consideration was given to the growing preparation of teachers in bogus online programs. We would never consider training surgeons online. Yet there is far more long-term and interpersonal interaction involved in teaching than in surgery. It is a disgrace that online teacher training has any legitimacy when it is so obvious that communication skills, honesty, work ethic and all those other traits good teachers demonstrate for our students cannot be conveyed in electronic correspondence courses. Online, there is no “company to keep.”
By focusing on test scores, we substitute examinations for an education. To continue down the current road of reducing school to test prep, the U.S. can settle for teachers mostly from the bottom of the college classes. And our drop out rate will continue to soar and our college completion continue to fall.
To reclaim the teacher professionalism that made American education great until recently, we will need far more teachers drawn from the top third of our college graduates.
Because we learn far more from the company we keep, than from the tests we take.