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Quality Counts / Raising the Bar

Getting beyond the notion that "anybody can teach"

By Dennis Van Roekel
April 8, 2011

Today I believe we’re on the cusp of major changes in public education. The impetus has been building from several directions. There are self-proclaimed “reformers” who believe our schools have largely failed, and who assign much of the blame to teachers. There are government and business leaders who realize that we must create a new education system for the 21st century. Then there are teachers and educators, yearning to uplift our profession in ways that will help us serve students better.

Change is underway – but we must make our choices wisely. Some people have criticized teachers’ unions for not offering positive solutions, and in the past that has too often been true. Now it’s time to quit arguing about the past and look toward the future. It’s time for everyone who cares about public education – including the NEA – to put our best ideas on the table.

There is widespread agreement that teacher quality is critical, so I think it makes sense to begin there. If we continue to browbeat teachers while allowing anyone to enter the profession, we’ll never end the disruptive churn that sees 45 percent of new teachers abandon the profession in their first five years – and we’ll never attract and retain the great teachers our kids need.

We must find a better way. Let’s start by recruiting the smartest people we can find, and giving them the best training and preparation anyone could imagine.

I recently attended the first International Summit on the Teaching Profession, where I realized that some nations are already doing this. Finland, Canada and Singapore, which consistently outperform other nations in international student assessments, recruit many of their brightest students to teaching, then give them extensive training before they ever set foot in a classroom.

In the U.S., by contrast, there is a common belief that “anybody can teach.” Rather than help dispel this perception, too many colleges of education offer mediocre teacher preparation programs that lack academic rigor and frequently fail to provide adequate real-world, practical experience. Some new teachers are thrust into classrooms with almost no preparation whatsoever. They often wind up in schools where the poverty rate is high, and they usually don’t stay long.

The time has come for NEA to make a renewed commitment to teacher quality. Over the coming months I will talk about ways to raise the bar of entry to the profession and about providing teachers with better opportunities for improvement and professional growth. I know that our 3.2 million members will offer some great ideas about how we can strengthen our profession. And I will be considering the ideas of others who work in education, as well as policymakers and education leaders. I look forward to hearing from them and anyone else who cares about the future of public education.

Let’s do the math…

  • There are 3,232,813 teachers in K-12 public schools. About 16 percent of these positions become vacant each year.
  • Nearly one-quarter of school districts do not require new teachers to have certification for what they are teaching.
  • In Finland, the average acceptance rate into schools of education is a mere 10 percent. Those who graduate at the top of their class are the only ones who can consider a career in education. It is the most competitive field, more so than medicine and law.


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NEA President on MSNBC

NEA President on MSNBC
Dennis Van Roekel tells a national audience about NEA’s Bully Free: It Starts with Me campaign.