Monday, October 1, 2007

How many Mark Twains have we had?

The editors of the Daily Herald began their series considering the voucher referendum today with an editorial that asks questions about the need for licensure of teachers. They are fair enough questions. Not every job in the world ought to require a license, or a certificate, or even a diploma. For that matter, editors themselves bear no such requirement. One of our favorite American authors, Mark Twain, was a newspaper editor and never earned a college degree.

But, then again, how many Mark Twains have we had in the five centuries since Columbus landed in 1492?

At any rate, the editors take issue with the argument that teachers ought to be college-educated and licensed in order to teach. Public schools -- accountable to the citizens under the Utah Constitution -- expect at least that level of education and licensure of candidates who apply for available classroom jobs. But private schools are not bound to the same level of accountability, and the Herald's editors may find that acceptable.

They ask here (,

Is it necessarily bad that a teacher doesn't have a license from Utah?

To which I would answer: No, it isn't necessarily bad that a teacher doesn't have a license from Utah. But thank goodness that we have an expectation that a teacher will have a license from SOMEwhere, one showing that a credible college or university found her worthy of a college degree in her chosen field, and that a state granted her application for a license after applying the same examination to her that it applies to all others seeking a career as an education professional.

We are talking about education professionals, after all. Don't we have a right to expect that professionals will bring a level of measured education and credentials to their work? And is there a better way to measure someone's education than by reviewing their diplomas or degrees, or a better way to check their credentials than by asking where or how they've been licensed? If a person can offer no such evidence of education or credential, then is it wise to leave them before a classroom of 25 or more second-graders? Or call them professionals?

The editors ask next,

Are unlicensed teachers always bad?

Which is very strange question, when you think of other professions that also expect a certain level of education and credentials.

Would I mind being operated on by an unlicensed cardiac surgeon, or an unlicensed brain surgeon? Are unlicensed surgeons always bad? I suppose it depends on what outcome you hope to achieve.

Would I mind being represented in court by an unlicensed attorney, one who brought no law degree or professional credential to my case? Are unlicensed lawyers always bad? Again, it may depend on whether or not you're serious about your case.

Nurses, too, are expected to bring some years of training and some credentials to their work. I'm reminded of just what those certifications represent is every time I'm given a painless injection. When a nurse spends several minutes looking for a vein, I spend several minutes wondering where to look for their diploma. Are unlicensed nurses always bad? Maybe not; my bleeding has eventually stopped, every time.

But these aren't the only people who want so badly to be seen as capable, competent and knowledgeable enough in their fields of work that they spend the years necessary to be educated, and take the tests necessary to earn a license or a certificate. I have a mechanic that I see for routine work on my car, and I've noticed for at least the past fifteen years that he hangs every new certificate or license showing his professional trainings on the wall in his shop. Three years ago, only after I came home to find water standing in my kitchen and dining room floor, I was surprised to realize that most of the advertisements for plumbers in the phone book say they're certified or licensed in some way or another.

Are unlicensed mechanics and plumbers always bad? I don't know, because I don't hire them. And when I'm forced to think about that and wonder why I don't hire unlicensed mechanic to work on my car, or an unlicensed plumber to find and replace my old and rusting pipes, I have to say it's this: When I hire someone to do a job for me and my family, I want to trust that they have been educated and trained to do the job, that some credible authority has certified that they can and will do the job.

So then the editors ask,

Are the licensed teachers doing so well that no one can compete with them?

I'm sorry, but I think this is a foolish question. And it is an especially foolish question given that Utahns brought the Olympics to Salt Lake just a few years ago. Is there a better example of high-quality competition than the Olympics? I am absolutely confident that not one athlete who competed that year was given a spot on a team out of charity. For me, one of the best parts of that experience was listening to the stories of some of those athletes, hearing how they had trained for years in all sorts of conditions, and hearing how they had competed against the best in their own communities or regions or nations to win a place on their national team. They got their education through years of hard work, and they got their medals (their licenses?) from meeting or raising the bar in their sport.

Now, were those Olympic athletes doing so well that no one could compete with them? Maybe not. Is it possible that someone could walk in off the street and run a 100-meter race just as fast as the person who came in 16th or 18th that day? Anything's possible. But what are the odds? Would we bet on those odds?

I love competition. But if I were ever to bet on the Olympics, I'd favor the athlete who had trained for years, knew his field and had earned his stripes back home against others almost as good as him. And I wouldn't discount his effort by asking if he thought he was doing so well that no one could compete with him.

Some trained and seasoned athletes are better than others, but they are trained and seasoned enough to compete. So are some educated and licensed teachers better than others, but it says something that they're educated and licensed well enough to meet standards.

And speaking of standards, the Olympics offers a great but tough lesson there, too. Regardless of what happened at the last Olympics, or the one before that, the athletes who don't meet today's standards get left behind. And the same lesson applies even to well-educated, licensed teachers. It's why there are standards in the first place, isn't it?

Lastly, the editors ask,

Does a college degree guarantee quality in a teacher?

What a question. Does a medical degree guarantee that no patient will die? Does a law degree guarantee that no case will be lost? Does a business degree guarantee that a CEO's company will thrive? If the editors' question is a valid one, then so are these. The answers to all of them will be the same.

I offer the same example that I began with: Mark Twain, who didn't earn a college degree but who was a newspaper editor, and who edited journals of his day. He wrote the great American novel, and he is still considered to be the only American ever to do so. That makes him exceptional.

The Herald's editors will recognize that I've picked an exception to the rule to make my point, because they picked exceptions to the rule to make theirs. How many Bill Gateses are there? How many Steve Jobses? Or Larry Ellisons? Have any of these men really asked to be able to teach public school in Utah?

But let's ask another pertinent question. The Herald editors have used Mr. Gates as a flashcard to support their case, but which Mr. Gates are they using: the Mr. Gates of today, who has accomplished all that he has, or the Mr. Gates of 30 years ago, when he dropped out of college?

And which George Washington, the potential principal of their editorial? The one who was the singular general and exceptional first American president? Or the 22-year-old one that hadn't yet accomplished all of those amazing things?

This, too, is a valid question, because we're not talking about singularly amazing exceptions coming to teach in Utah's schools. House Bill 148 doesn't ask private schools to be accountable for a single piece of evidence that the potential teacher brings any education, credential or any other valuable experience to their classrooms, exceptional or not. House Bill 148 allows any George, any Bill, any Steve, any Larry, any Mary, any Lizzie, any Ted, any Jeffrey or any Chester from Pahrump (who was "good with children," his girlfriend told CNN today here ask for -- and be given -- a job teaching in Utah.

If I've read House Bill 148 incorrectly, I beg pardon and ask to be shown where I am wrong.

The Herald editors have made their position known on the issue, and that's good. They write,

Of course, you don't have to be famous to teach well. Neither do you always need a teaching credential. The qualities that define a great teacher do not flow from a piece of paper.

There's an easy "Amen." The greatest teacher in the world didn't have a license either. But then again, He was the greatest teacher in the world. How many like Him to do have applying to teach?

Until we have a lot more of that exceptional quality, I'm comfortable asking applicants to have a college degree and a license.


Anonymous said...

Are the Herald editors advocating allowing people to drive cars without a license? The whole point of working toward and obtaining a license is to show proficiency in and knowledge of the skill you'll be licensed to use.

Of course, editors don't need licenses because any fool can spout off an opinion.

Kathy said...

This link might interest you:

Vouchers and Public School Performance
A Case Study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program