By Ryan Tibbens
Public school teachers will attend tens of millions of hours of division-prescribed professional development this year. Almost none of it will help teachers learn more about ‘what’ to teach and ‘why’ to teach it. Nearly all of it will focus on ‘how’ to teach. That is ridiculous.
First, let’s acknowledge the power of pedagogy and honing one’s craft. Teachers should be constantly learning and sharing methods, increasing their arsenal of strategies to engage and affect an increasingly distracted and diverse student body. Teachers must also work purposefully to learn about new technologies and how to implement them (or not) in order to build “21st Century Skills.” Professional development must always include a consistent and sincere focus on pedagogy.
However, ‘how’ to teach is useless if the teacher does not know ‘what’ to teach or ‘why’ to teach some topics in depth, others in brief, and others not at all. Because teachers have traditionally been regarded as gatekeepers of knowledge, and because the first requisite qualification for work is a college degree in the discipline, many people falsely assume that teachers already know enough about their content. That is patently untrue.
Before we even worry about content-specific knowledge, let’s consider teachers’ general academic aptitudes. On average, teachers scored below average on the SAT when they were in high school. 54% of elementary teaching candidates fail the Praxis I test on their first try. Most data indicate that teachers have an average IQ of, well, around average. Praxis II (content-specific test) data is harder to come by, but even basic score ranges indicate great variation and suspicious pass rates. I’ve heard more teachers make the “Cs get degrees” joke than I care to count.
I’m not arguing that teachers are stupid. Most teachers are smart, hardworking, and functional in the classroom. Approximately 10% of teachers earned SAT scores in the top 20% (still a striking underrepresentation though). I’m simply arguing that teachers, on average, are average (particularly in lower grade levels). And we can all probably agree that, on average, we don’t remember too much detail from our own public schooling. But that’s what college is for, right? Uh-oh. Check out what the National Council on Teacher Quality found in a survey of elementary teacher preparation programs:
The teacher does not need to be the most intelligent person in the room based on IQ, but the teacher does need to be the most knowledgeable, the most aware, and the most (justifiably) confident. I remember being in classes when there was no doubt that the teacher was in the bottom half based on IQ and only somewhere around the top quarter based on content knowledge – it was the worst part of school for me.
So what do we do? Let’s get real. Let’s stop pretending that pedagogy and technology are the only things that teachers need to be trained on. If we’re going to sit through dozens of hours of mandatory professional development each year, is it crazy for a couple days to address content knowledge? Public school leaders always talk about creating “life-long learners” and “critical thinkers,” but how is that a likely outcome when teachers don’t learn more about their content? How can we promote interdisciplinary connections and PBL if we don't learn more about the other subjects their students study? If you don’t know stuff, you can’t think stuff; and if you can’t think stuff, then you can't do much. Let’s empower our teachers.
Pedagogy is great. Technology is fine. But if we spend all our time worrying about “how” to teach without supporting “what” and “why,” then we’ve done our teachers, our taxpayers, and, most importantly, our students a great disservice. Bring back content-based professional development to inspire teachers’ curiosity, passion, and overall performance.
Because no one else