It’s no secret that America’s education system needs colossal reform.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle always campaign on the issue, and policy makers push new standards every few years. But what might just be needed is a radical approach to teaching instead of more standards and tests.
That’s what Jal Mehta examines in his new book, The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling. While he reflects on the history of school reform movements such as the controversial No Child Left Behind, he also offers innovative solutions to revitalizing public education.
“Each time we get interested in those vehicles to try and improve schooling, we invest high hopes in them and each time they fall short,” Mehta, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, tells TakePart.
Some of those ideas include more standardized testing and revision of standards such as the incoming Common Core State Standards. But Mehta says that there is another way to look at education in this country, and it begins with teachers. In fact, he says in all seriousness, that K-12 teachers need training similar to what physicians receive.
“We let doctors operate, pilots fly and engineers build because their fields have developed effective ways of certifying that they can do these things,” he recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “Teaching, on the whole, lacks this specialized knowledge base; teachers teach based mostly on what they have picked up from experience and from their colleagues.”
Comparatively, Mehta says teaching is a failed profession compared to that of lawyers and doctors. Yet, we expect just as much out of this country’s education system as we do our medical and legal systems.
Mehta says that in many instances, teaching in the U.S. is a by-the-seat-of-the-pants profession in which young, inexperienced teachers are thrown into the classroom with very little, if any, mentoring. He would like to see more extensive training for teachers and even go so for as to tenure K-12 teachers once they have proven themselves. “Master teachers,” in turn, with years of experience, would be used to train new teachers.
He argues that teaching is skilled work, and, in that regard, teachers need more extensive training.
“You need teachers that know quite a bit about their subject matter,” he says. “For instance, in math, if you’re going to try and get kids to get the underlying concepts, you need to understand those concepts.”
But he says a key problem is that teachers lack prep time for class. He cites countries like Japan and Korea, where teachers teach less and have more time to plan. Teachers in the United States teach on average 1,100 hours per year compared to 600-700 hours in other countries.
One way to solve this time crunch is team teaching. Mehta says more schools, which are attempting deeper interdisciplinary work, have found great success in teaming teachers from opposite subjects such as math and digital arts.
Mehta also calls for an educational equivalent of the National Institutes of Health. Otherwise, he says, the system will continue to fail. Commercial curriculum designers will create what districts and states want. Instead, a more uniformed system is needed. Sure, the Common Core Standards might work with key goals. But if teachers aren’t skilled, the standards may go down in the history books as another failed idea.
As for standardized testing, Mehta says that many people want it to serve as a “magical bullet” to solve every education crisis, but that it is far more complicated than that.
“The idea that you could buy and impose these tests to transform the system as a whole is magical thinking, a magical shortcut,” he said. “Rather, if you did all of these other things—strong teachers with training and gave them time to think, prepare and even deal with high-poverty students—the test scores would represent real learning.”