HICKS: Content expertise best basis for teacher licensing

November 14, 2009

One steadfast way of gauging the effect of proposed policy changes is to see who lines up against them.

Take, for example, State School Superintendent Tony Bennett’s recommended changes to teacher and administrator licensing rules. Bennett proposes that applicants for teacher licenses have more education in content areas (like math and science) at the expense of coursework involving how students learn (pedagogy).

This proposal has mightily discomfited the educational establishment. The outcry from these folks has been overwhelmingly focused on how the new rules would inconvenience those who plan and administer teacher education. The dean of at least one state teachers’ college even went so far as to express concern over how it would trouble his school’s curriculum.

These positions are ham-handed, and off point. What matters is student performance. It bears a constant reminder that in this arena, U.S. schools, and ours in Indiana, face an unpleasant set of facts. At the high school level, U.S. student performance has plunged to the bottom of the developed world. Yet, teacher training in the United States is far more dominated by pedagogy than in the other developed countries. If anything, Bennett’s reforms are too timid.

There is also a heavy dose of job protection in the response to this proposal. One result has been a mobilization of teachers, administrators and even college students in an old-style turf battle. The facts here are also tough going for Indiana’s status quo.

Take yours truly as an example. Over the past 20 years, the U.S. Army thought it wise for me to command 300 soldiers and be responsible for $50 million in facilities and equipment. This experience is valuable in lots of places, just not as a school administrator. To do that job would require at least two more years of undergraduate courses at a teachers’ college.

Likewise, three universities trust me to teach economics to 18-year-olds. But to teach the same material to a 17-year-old at the local high school is out of the question. It would require at least two more years of coursework at a teachers’ college.

At a time when we are desperate for science and math teachers, and when several big firms are laying off scientists, we should be jumping at the chance to get them into the classroom. But under current rules, their content knowledge isn’t sufficient. They’d all need two more years in college. The stance of Indiana’s educational establishment on this issue is outrageous.

What bothers me most about this issue is the unfair impression it gives of our state’s teachers and administrators. By succumbing to sordid job protectionism, the educational establishment in Indiana makes it seem as if our classroom teachers need protecting. They don’t. The good ones (who are a majority) will do just fine whatever the licensing rules.

We need to open the door to those who can teach and know the subject matter, and not worry about the amount of time they spend at a teachers’ college.•


Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.


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