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Fixing NYC's Teacher Crisis

Ohanian Comment: Warning: This is a very ugly article. Note that the writer is a member of the editorial board. This kind of "reporting" is editorial policy at the paper, and it shows in every so-called news item that appears in its pages.

January 20, 2004 -- THOSE ads are back on the subways, asking commuters to question their careers: Where will you leave your mark? Wall Street? Madison Avenue? Or a New York City public school?

The ads may seem innocuous (aside from inducing guilt in those of us not sainted enough to dedicate our lives to educating the next generation), but they're actually assaults in an escalating campaign against the gatekeepers of the teaching trade: the schools of education and the teachers unions.

These sentinels have been willing to compromise the education of America's children for decades by creating an artificial shortage of legally certified teachers, solely to perpetuate their own power.

But the city, and school districts around the country, aren't taking it any more. They're not just sick of the perpetual shortage, they're staring at a 2005 deadline under President Bush's No Child Left Behind law to have a "qualified teacher" in every classroom.

So they're end-running the roadblocks with "alternative route" certification programs - like New York City Teaching Fellows, the one being advertised on the subway. These programs offer a shortcut to the classroom for qualified candidates. But it's only a partial reform of a system that makes it ridiculously difficult to become a teacher.

New York City's program was set up by Schools Chancellor Harold Levy in 2000. It takes anyone (from a 2003 Harvard graduate to a former corporate executive to a college professor) and puts him through "boot camp," then in front of a classroom, in just months. (Traditionally, prospective teachers must first endure years of education courses.)

But the program's too small: just 1,800 fellows this year, when New York will need to fill some 10,000 teaching positions. And the city isn't getting enough for the $12,000 it pays to get each fellow a graduate degree in education. (It's now asking each fellow to kick in $4,000 of that.)

The key problem is that certification - alternative or traditional - doesn't really mean much.

Michael Podgursky, chairman of the economics department at the University of Missouri, has studied teacher certification and concluded that certification has no connection to effectiveness in the classroom. "The fact that a teacher is certified doesn't tell you a lot more than that they aren't a criminal," he said.

Evan Lowenthal, newly certified via a more traditional route, agrees. An adjunct professor of English at Touro College and Baruch College since the late '80s, Lowenthal started teaching in the public-school system in 2000 as an uncertified teacher. He just became certified at the beginning of this month, after roughly 31/2 years.

"I guess before I was a bad teacher, now I'm magically a good teacher," Lowenthal told me last week. With a Ph.D. in English coming in, he still needed 18 credits in professional education to keep his job. He squeezed these in between 2000 and 2004, while teaching high-school English full time - five classes a semester, 35 kids to a class - in Hell's Kitchen and then Harlem.

"I learned some things of value, but not enough to make it worth all the time," he told me. "You learn more from talking to seasoned colleagues than reading pseudo-Marxists."

Arthur Levine - as president of Columbia Teachers College, a king of the gatekeepers - disagrees. Teaching fellows, he warns, are "walking into a classroom with no knowledge of curriculum, or how children learn or how children develop." And that, he says, "would be unacceptable in any suburban classroom in the country. It's not good enough for middle-class kids, it's not good enough for affluent kids."

Unfortunately for Levine, plenty of affluent parents disagree - even New York City schools chancellors, members of the state Board of Regents and celebrity public-school boosters: They consistently keep their kids out of even the city's best public schools, which are filled to the gills with certified teachers, and put them into private schools, which absolutely ignore certification.

Robert Stewart, headmaster and founder of York Prep on the Upper West Side, calls certification "irrelevant." (He estimates that a third of his teachers may be certified.) "A good teacher knows how to teach, and a bad teacher can't necessarily be taught," he said.

The make-work certification requirements are imposed on Schools Chancellor Joel Klein by the state Board of Regents and Department of Education - but he could ask for more relief. Say, for permission to emulate the successful alternative-certification system in New Jersey.

There, teacher candidates are hired with nothing but a college degree. They undergo classroom mentoring and take a condensed version of the traditional ed-school curriculum - equivalent to about one-third the number of credits New York City requires - which the state's ed schools bid to provide. Then they must pass a state test in the subject they teach and have their principal certify their classroom competence.

Such a stripped-down system would save the city millions - and prospective teachers thousands - and put many more qualified teachers on their way to staffing positions in hard-to-fill subjects and schools.

The chancellor could help leave his mark by easing the way for thousands more New Yorkers to leave theirs.

Ryan Sager (rsager@nypost.com) is a member of The Post's editorial board.

— Ryan Sager
Fixing NYC's Teacher Crisis
New York Post


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