Who's Narrating the "Teacher Shortage" Narrative?

Photo credit: http://www.networkforpubliceducation.org/2015/08/newsletter-teacher-shortage-ny-times-got-it-wrong/
Photo credit: http://www.networkforpubliceducation.org/2015/08/newsletter-teacher-shortage-ny-times-got-it-wrong/

A recent column by Stephen Mucher, Director of the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Bard College, has attracted a lot of attention from those concerned about the health and vitality of public education. And for good reason. Mr. Mucher mentions the recent history of campus protests across the country, which he says he has noticed on his visits to some of the nation's most elite universities ("M.I.T. to U.S.C., Appalachian State to Cal State, Michigan to Berkeley, Amherst to Occidental") in his attempts to recruit what he refers to as "brilliant, dedicated, inspired young people who are ready and willing to serve" to Bard's Master of Arts in Teaching program. His conclusion is that these students are still engaged, politically aware, and want to make a difference in our nation's future ("until recently, many flocked to Teach For America"), but "they do not want to become teachers."


Without offering any actual evidence, Mr. Mucher suggests that prospective teachers have been scared off from applying to his program by much of the agenda of the corporate reform movement: increasing accountability demands placed on teachers, using student test scores to determine teachers' effectiveness ratings, and "the way teachers are blamed for much broader social problems." Now, no one who has spent any time in a classroom over the past several years would disagree that these are all real problems, and have combined to create a profession that feels under attack and held to unrealistic expectations even as states and the federal government continue a systematic disinvestment in public education. However, I would suggest that at least part of Mr. Mucher's failure to find what he is looking for may be because he is he is basing his search strategy on a faulty premise--and perhaps more importantly, because he's looking in the wrong places.

Better Rhetoric

A careful reading of Mr. Mucher's essay reveals an emphasis on the same, tired old reformer rhetoric: that teachers are "the problem" in public education ("But finding candidates to fill this role, especially good candidates, may be more difficult than policymakers are willing to admit"), and that these problems can be solved only if we can improve the quality of the teaching workforce ("America’s public schools need better teachers"). In an effort to bolster his assertions, Mr. Mucher nods to a recent survey suggesting that the teacher shortage is a significant problem, and identifying a set of principles designed to attract more young persons to the profession. [Curiously, these principles are eerily similar to the ones released earlier this week by the #TeachStrong initiative: "Better pre-service preparation, scholarships, loan forgiveness, higher salaries, professional mentorship, in-service training, and more time for collaborative work."]

With all due respect to Mr. Mulcher, it's time to put a stop to this lazy rhetoric, and stop blaming teachers for the problems that have been caused by the very reform agenda that forms the underpinning for his essay. Teachers are not the problem--teachers are the solution.

The "problems" in public education won't be solved by promoting the rhetoric that simply luring the "best and brightest" students from America's most elite colleges and universities to teaching will somehow fix the systemic defunding and privatization of our schools and the de-professionalization of the teaching profession. If anything, this strategy has contributed to the destabilization of the teaching force through programs such as Teach for America and The New Teacher Project--both of which, ironically enough, are partners for the #TeachStrong initiative.

Public education will only be "fixed" by admitting that whatever problems do exist in the schools have only been worsened by the damages done by the corporate reformers. Is there a "teacher shortage" in certain areas and in specific subject areas? Of course. But this shortage has been a "manufactured" one, and won't be solved simply by increasing the numbers of new entrants to the profession. We must first address the root causes of the shortage--poor working conditions, inadequate compensation structures, a lack of administrative and community support for teachers and schools, and invalid and unreliable teacher evaluation systems that are driving the most talented and experienced teachers out of the classroom.

Looking for Teachers in All the Wrong Places...

If Mr. Mulcher is really interested in finding more and "better" teachers I would also suggest that, instead of copying the approach of Teach for America and other alternative route to certification programs, he start by looking for young people who actually want to be career teachers--not just those with the highest GPAs or the gaudiest resumes.

I also find it curious that while the principles mentioned by Mr. Mulcher in his essay for improving the quality of the teaching force include recommendations for "better inservice preparation...in-service training, and more time for collaborative work," the marketing materials for the Bard MAT Program, which is designed to be completed in 14-24 months, appear to emphasize brevity and convenience more heavily than depth or breadth of content or experience. The irony here is remarkable.

The students I have the privilege of working with at Michigan State University are not only proficient in the skills, knowledge and dispositions needed for success as early career teachers, they are aware of the "big picture" surrounding public education, and are committed to making a difference. These students are deeply committed to becoming not just teachers, but to becoming teacher leaders. They recognize the inequities that currently exist in too many schools and communities, and are excited to enter a profession that desperately needs their energy and passion. My students understand that they are entering a profession that requires significant preparation, and have dedicated themselves to a comprehensive and thorough course of study that includes theory, practice and authentic field experiences over an extended period of time. 

While Mr. Mulcher seems alarmed at the recent protests on college campuses, I see these protests as signs that today's students are increasingly aware of the inequities that exist in our society, and are ready to do something about these problems. Where Mr. Mulcher sees college activism as a sign that students are less interested in joining the teaching force, I see these events as indications that college students are ready to join those of us who have committed our professional lives to making a difference in our public schools and communities.

It is our job to stand up to the reform agenda, and make public education a place that is again worthy of the passion, dedication and spirit of our newest colleagues. We need them, and they need us. 

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