Plans to put specialist teachers into elementary classrooms are well underway in the United Kingdom, Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Europe, Asia and other developed regions already require more in their curricula than does the United States. But these countries are ramping up the education of their teachers even higher, often recruiting from the top of their college student population.
Research has shown that most scientists were drawn into science as young children. Therefore providing elementary school specialists who have more training in science is their strategy for increasing science literacy in their citizens as well as boosting the number of students who enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. They are moving specialized teachers to earlier grades in other disciplines as well. You only need to observe exchange students we receive from these countries. Their students are two or even three grades ahead of their American classmates.
In the Kansas "Redesign" of teacher education in 2003, Kansas required middle school teachers to gain endorsements in distinct fields rather than elementary education. Kansas was a state that heavily used elementary teachers in our middle schools. Administrators faced difficulty finding teachers licensed in middle school math, English, science and social studies teachers—a problem that still plagues Kansas schools today.
But the motivation of the Kansas State Board of Education was correct. The world is becoming more complex. Future citizens are going to have to know more, not less. They planned ahead to a day when everyone is going to have to be more knowledgeable about math and business and history, etc. There is a lot more to learn than in pioneer days when the dictionary was not even one-fourth the size of a modern dictionary. Despite technology that lets us forget phone numbers and keep that "memory" on our belt or in a purse, digital resources require that we be better educated to ask intelligent questions and understand the answers we receive.
Therefore the call by some schools to eliminate the teaching credential by allowing local schools to license amateurs leaves my overseas colleagues puzzled. I cannot begin to explain to them the rationale, aside from "Kansas has a shortage of qualified teachers." While they are rewriting their requirements requiring more rigor for their future teachers, we are proposing to abandon ours.
Again, I return to the medical profession for comparison. William Beaumont was an early doctor, famous in textbooks for figuring out how the stomach digests food. Born in 1785, Beaumont had no college education but apprenticed under a doctor in Vermont. By the 1860s, Samuel Mudd—the doctor who set John Wilkes Booth’s leg—had received just 2 years of college education. In my college biology classes, I make a point of telling the sophomores among them that they could be medical doctors—back in the 1800s. But not today.
Across the developed world, countries are making the wise decision to move their populations to higher levels of academic literacy by increasing teacher standards. On the other hand, this Thursday, the Kansas State Board of Education faces a proposal that could take us back to the 1700s.