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Can Teaching Be Taught?

The nation's 1,400 colleges of education are under enormous pressure to produce teachers who are prepared for the realities of the classroom.  The usual term used in this regard is "highly qualified" ("It Takes a Village: Why Teacher Preparation Alone Cannot Raise the Bar for Teachers," Teachers College Record, Jul. 11). 

I submit that the best that these teacher preparation programs can do is to turn out teachers who are minimally effective.  "Highly qualified" is a nebulous term. Just what does it mean?  And how is it determined?  There are 3.2 million teachers in public schools in the U.S.  I doubt that they were all highly qualified when they started their careers. Some improved, some remained marginal.

What I do know, however, is that only a very few new teachers are virtuosos.  I define that term as a teacher who possesses a natural talent for instruction.  As W. James Popham has written, these are teachers who can violate every principle of instruction and yet still get marvelous results (Testing! Testing! Allyn and Bacon, 2000).  I place Frank McCourt and Jaime Escalante in this category.

I agree that teaching should be no different from other professions in the qualifications of their respective practitioners.  But let's get real.   Consider medicine.  There are 131 medical schools in the country and 880,000 licensed physicians.  Despite their relatively small numbers, medical schools vary in quality and in the expertise of those they graduate ("Second-Chance Med School," The New York Times, Jul. 31).

Compare that with the number of colleges of education (1,400) and the number of licensed public-school teachers (3.2 million).  I do not believe that it is possible to "scale successful programs" ("Teaching Teaching," The New York Times, Jul. 29).  It may be the single biggest issue facing public education, but it is unachievable.  I say that because I don't think quality and quantity can exist simultaneously.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.  

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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