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Quality in Education isn’t an Entitlement

I recently read an archived article written by John Fischer in February 1965 for Harper’s Magazine titled, “Is there a teacher on the faculty?” Being a former classroom teacher, I am still fascinated by this idea of quality teaching.  What is a quality teacher? Are the skills that make for a quality teacher inherent, or can they be learned? If they are learned, then it would seem they can be improved. If they are inherent, and therefore natural, it would seem that little improvement would be needed. Anyone who has ever been in a classroom setting-either formal or informal-seeks to achieve, consciously or unconsciously, a stated aim.  The teacher, also, seeks to achieve a particular  outcome from the teaching experience. How does the student-teacher relationship arise and develop where both are, more satisfied than not from the experience, given the complexities that are natural in the pursuit of knowledge?

My own experience as both a lifelong student and nearly decade as a public high school teacher lead me to conclude as John Fischer did 47 years ago that, “most college teachers are so poor.” I would add that most K-12 teachers are equally poor.  My mostly anecdotal research suggests that we are lucky, if we can’t count on one hand, the number of quality teachers we experienced throughout our academic experience. Why if teaching plays such an important role in our country and would suggest-though I am wholly unqualified to argue-throughout the world as well, has the overall quality of teaching remained poor for so long? And why do teachers that seem to be of poor quality remain teachers for so long, why others either burnout or are forced out of the occupation much earlier then the quality of their teaching suggests that they should?

Now, I know that many make a career of both answering the question of what makes a good teacher and are more than willing for free, or for fee, to help solve the poor teaching problem at any level of our society. It seems, even though public education has been in a near constant state of reform over the past, God knows how many decades, we still have not, as a society, achieved a desired level of quality in education.  Of course, an entirely, but not wholly unrelated question arises, “Who should be responsible for improving teacher quality in the first place?”  And on that question, well, I would join a long list of chatterers and experts of every sort, more then willing to share their opinion/advice or expertise on this equally perplexing educational question.  History finds that it is difficult to improve the overall quality of education–despite the hype that suggests otherwise–leading us to ask the question how does one improve the quality of teaching?

I would suggest that the quest to improve teaching is more about how students, and before college, parents, value education and the subsequent educational goals they set in relation to those values, than it is about trying to target improving the teacher. My short history of about twenty years in the field of education suggest most students/parents define their educational values and then determine their educational goals based on those values. Those students/parents with strong educational values tend to have well defined educational goals. Therefore,  students and/or parents almost effortlessly seek out, and usually find the teaching experience and institution of learning that aligns with their educational value system.  Quality teaching therefore is dependent on the customer–student, parent, community–and the individual or collective values and subsequent goals. The quality of teaching will vary depending on the individual, or collective needs of the student and their caregivers. The more defined your educational values the better your goals and subsequent learning outcomes. A well defined educational strategy, with thought out and proven values as its base, is the surest way for individuals, or societies as a whole, to improve the educational experience, and in the process, change the fundamental supply-demand equation and thus, overall quality of teaching.