OPINION: Strengthening teacher pipeline won’t matter if destination is a sewer

Peter Smagorinsky worked 14 years in K-12 schools and more than 30 years in university teacher education programs. He says Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s plan to strengthen the pipeline of future teachers by creating new pathways to the classroom won’t work. The problem, Smagorinsky says, is that if the destination is still a sewer, the quality, size, and rhetorical embellishments of the pipeline won’t matter.
Peter Smagorinsky worked 14 years in K-12 schools and more than 30 years in university teacher education programs. He says Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s plan to strengthen the pipeline of future teachers by creating new pathways to the classroom won’t work. The problem, Smagorinsky says, is that if the destination is still a sewer, the quality, size, and rhetorical embellishments of the pipeline won’t matter.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Education professor: Governor’s efforts to increase teacher supply must begin with making schools vibrant and humane workplaces

Veteran educator and college professor Peter Smagorinsky read the governor’s guest column that appeared here Tuesday on new efforts to recruit and retain teachers in Georgia. After a long career as a teacher and a professor in a college of education, Smagorinsky did not agree with the central themes of Brian Kemp’s plan to increase teacher supply.

Smagorinsky is a Distinguished Research Professor of English Education, Emeritus, Department of Language and Literacy Education (English Education).

By Peter Smagorinsky

Gov. Brian Kemp published an essay recently in Get Schooled entitled “We must strengthen teacher pipeline.” I’ll begin by saying I’m glad to see Gov. Kemp making a high-quality K-12 school system a priority. Good schools are associated with many societal benefits. They attract industry and other sources of jobs. They raise real estate values. They help reduce “brain drain” to other states. Good schools are good for a state’s business, along with the quality of community life.

Gov. Kemp shares a concern that is borne out by the facts: Teachers are like pro football players, to whom NFL means “not for long.” Well, at least football players are well-paid and love their work. Their careers end in their mid-20s through injuries and being beaten out by someone better.

Many teachers have very short careers too. As Maureen Downey reports in introducing Gov. Kemp’s essay, teacher attrition has reached catastrophic levels, with nearly half of new teachers leaving the profession within five years of beginning. They don’t leave because they blow out their knees. They don’t get forced out of their positions by an exciting new competitor. They leave voluntarily because their work conditions are terrible.

They might love the classroom and their students; they might have invested a college education in preparing to teach. But the school climate, shaped largely by people from outside the classroom, is toxic, now both literally and figuratively. To save their lives and their souls, they pack their laptops and look for something more fulfilling to do, in a career in which they feel respected, appreciated, and rewarded.

And now, Maureen reports, teacher education programs are showing declines in enrollment, with college students no doubt influenced by the ways in which schools are depicted in the media and described by teachers themselves. Teachers are bailing out of a profession they never even get certified to enter.

Gov. Kemp deserves praise for recognizing there is a problem. I don’t think he and I see the same problem, however. To him, what we need is a broader, more diverse, less restricted pipeline to becoming a teacher. To me, what we need is a school system that people want to work in. The reason that the profession is getting shorted in personnel is not one of access. It’s that the destination itself has become undesirable.

Potential teachers know this because they have, very recently, been students in the same schools that are having difficulty holding onto their faculties, and that may well have trouble filling their growing numbers of vacancies. As students, they have experienced dull, centralized instruction in which they, their teachers, and their schools are assessed according to standardized tests. They have watched dynamic teachers handcuffed by demands for homogeneity such that they can’t teach according to their talent and judgment. They have sat in classrooms in which test preparation has displaced teaching and learning, and watched their teachers suffocate intellectually because their abilities are continually discouraged and punished by test-centric administrators.

They’ve then watched those teachers disappear the next year in search of another career. That’s not a very appealing career prospect for a dynamic individual hoping to change the world by engaging young people in compelling issues through which they learn useful knowledge to shape their citizenship.

Dr. Peter Smagorinsky
Dr. Peter Smagorinsky

And now, everyone can see how little the lives of teachers are valued in their schools and communities. Most dramatically, they have watched as shameful, remorseless administrators like Cobb County Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and two Cobb school board members showed contempt for staff well-being by refusing to take a minute to honor the lives of their faculty who die from COVID-19.

Gov. Kemp has laid out a “‘Teacher Pipeline’ legislative package to recruit, prepare, mentor, and retain the best educators.” The problem, in this vision, is that Georgia lacks a pipeline to the classroom. A good pipeline, under the assumptions in this legislation, will solve the problem of teacher attrition.

The problem, in my view, is that if the destination is still a sewer, the quality, size, and rhetorical embellishments of the pipeline won’t matter.

Again, I am pleased to see Gov. Kemp taking action. Yet I disagree with his belief that every community has an abundance of service-oriented people ready to fill vacancies in schools created by the departure of disaffected teachers. I have little confidence that if these concerned citizens follow the news and learn that their local administrators are willing to risk their lives in unsafe buildings, they will want to make schools the places where they serve their communities.

The Teacher Pipeline legislation also has a commitment to developing Historically Black Colleges and Universities’ teacher education programs. I’m all for that. But COVID-19 has had an especially devastating effect on Black communities. I question the assumption that a beefed-up teacher education program will lead them to add to their risk factors by teaching in overcrowded, mask-optional schools with only casual attention to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and days filled with following scripted, test-driven curricula.

The population of retired teachers is also identified in this legislation as a source of new teachers. But they already bailed once. Is a small set of incentives enough to bring them back to the same buildings that are driving out newcomers in droves?

The proposal also seeks to ramp up the teaching of phonics and reading comprehension, and to begin that effort in university teacher education programs. I’ve taught with reading faculty at the University of Georgia for a long time now and know that such emphases (along with others) have been in place for a long time already. The problem, however, is not simply one of improving technique and method. If kids are hungry, malnourished, unhealthy, and otherwise compromised in their ability to concentrate in school — or even get to school — then all the phonics in the world won’t change much.

Gov. Kemp rightfully calls attention to the problem that teachers are left out of decision-making and plans to empower them by having the state Teacher of the Year serve in an ex-officio (non-voting) role on the state Board of Education.

There are about 114,800 teachers in Georgia. One will now have a voice, if not a vote. I don’t see widespread teacher empowerment following from this appointment.

I applaud the governor’s idea of making schools a priority and hope it’s not just because his daughter intends to teach, as he mentioned. To me, the problem isn’t one that can be solved with a pipeline. Schools themselves need to become places where people want to go to work, and students want to go to learn. The outcome evidence — from both short-duration careers and reduced teacher education enrollments — suggests that they are not. The anecdotal evidence — from teacher revolts and teacher testimonies, from endless news stories of callous administrators — confirms that conclusion.

I hate reaching this conclusion. I have spent my adult life as an educator, including 14 years in schools and more than 30 years in university teacher education programs. I believe in public education, in teachers, and in kids; I wish I believed in how many schools are run, and in how education is treated in state and district budgets. Creating new pathways to the same places that people are deserting in droves won’t make schools appealing places to work.

For that, there needs to be an infusion of money (class size does matter, especially when people need to have 6 feet of space); real teacher voice beyond one exemplary teacher sitting voteless on one board; participation in decisions about how schools are run, including how they respond to COVID-era health and safety measures; and much more. Without such changes, all the pipelines in the world will sit vacant, while the pipeline out of the profession is clogged with teachers moving on to something else.

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