Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Teach

For the last several decades, the question surrounding plunging American education performance has been “Why can’t Johnny read?” Now, more educators think they know the answer: Johnny’s teacher can’t teach.

The recognition that too many American teachers are not qualified to stand before a classroom has been recently expressed by such luminaries in education as former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and president of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten. Both Klein and Weingarten are calling for more rigorous entry standards into the profession by way of tougher standardized tests, stricter entry requirements to teacher programs and more time spent training in the classroom.

Raising the bar for our teachers is an initiative we fully support, and such sweeping reforms can’t come too soon. American public education is in a dangerous tailspin. A 2012 report by the Thomas Fordham Institute along with a review by the National Association of Education Progress on the state of science education in the U.S. painted a dismal picture. The report gave 26 states a grade of D or lower when it came to implementing a modern science curriculum. When compared to 15-year-olds in 62 countries, American students ranked only 23rd. Only 21 percent of American 12th-graders were deemed “proficient” in science. American students were handily beaten by such countries as Slovenia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Students from Shanghai scored the highest. Only 30 percent of American high-school students are academically equipped to enter college.

The report cited too little emphasis on math and a pervasive atmosphere of “mathophobia” in schools, where teachers avoid mathematics when teaching science. Little wonder. Even the math teachers don’t know math very well. Fully one-half of American math teachers don’t have a degree in math. The report doesn’t only fault teachers for the terrible state of science education. It also blames fuzzy and incomprehensible state standards, making it virtually impossible for teachers to know what they should be instructing.

Teachers should be the top academic performers, not the worst. Unfortunately, many American teachers are coming from the bottom of the academic barrel. Half of all public school teachers graduate at the bottom third of their college class. Contrast that with Finland, where teachers comprise the top 10 percent of all college graduates, and where it’s a fiercely competitive and respected field. Currently, 99 percent of those taking New York State’s certification exam pass. A teacher certification exam should be more challenging than writing one’s name on top of an examination booklet.

But it isn’t only about raising the bar for entry into the profession. The bar also has to be lowered for principals and administrators to dismiss incompetent teachers. In any other profession, incompetence isn’t tolerated. If someone doesn’t perform competently, he or she is fired. Not so with teachers. Firing a teacher has become a virtually impossible task in New York City. Out of New York City’s 55,000 teachers, only 11 were dismissed in 2012. It takes the city years, hundreds of thousands of dollars and reams of testimony from supervisors and independent observers to have a tenured teacher dismissed, causing principals to flinch from initiating dismissal hearings.

Case in point: Amy Woda, a teacher in P.S. 62 in Queens, who consistently received unsatisfactory ratings, dragged out her case for four years until she was finally dismissed. While battling the attempts to dismiss her, Woda didn’t set foot into a classroom from May 2008 to November 2010, yet the Department of Education kept paying her full salary and benefits, ultimately costing taxpayers a total of $172,000. Or consider the case of Ken Ping Teoh, a math teacher in Francis Lewis High School, Queens, who was paid $332,000 while out of the classroom and fighting charges of incompetence.

The argument for giving so-called educators such slack and demanding an overwhelming burden of proof before they can be dismissed is that teachers are underpaid and overworked. True enough. Teachers don’t earn very high salaries and teaching in an inner-city school can certainly be challenging. However, New York City teachers earn benefits and pensions unheard of in the private sector. Hundreds of retired city teachers are already raking in six-figure pensions for life, exempt from New York State tax. In addition, retirees are granted life-long health benefits. A private-sector worker would have to squirrel away more than two million dollars to have that kind of post-retirement income. NYC teachers are extremely well-compensated when retirement benefits are factored in.

If the United States wants to restore its global competitive advantage, its educational system needs some shock therapy to bring it out of the catatonic state in which it’s been languishing since the 1970s. It needs the same kind of change that the federal government implemented after the Sputnik launch jolted our nation to undertake a dramatic educational system upgrade. Weingarten said that a new educational standard could be launched in five years. That may be too long a time frame to recover from a massively dysfunctional system. As a nation, the United States cannot afford to be left back.