Untraditional teachers needed to lift schools, says Harvard dean

Pat Graham seems remarkably cheerful for a woman whose job, by her own admission, is not held in the highest regard. She teaches teachers how to teach. Dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Education, and former director of the National Institute of Education in the Jimmy Carter administration, she is acutely aware that her academic discipline sits in the cross hairs of national concern about education reform. With a projected 1 million teachers planning to retire or leave the classroom by 1990, the question of who replaces them becomes one of the most pressing issues facing educators today, she says.

That is why, in this discussion about the quality of America's teachers, Dr. Patricia Albjerg Graham wants to touch upon not only the kind of training a student receives before he or she enters teaching, but also the kind of person who goes into teaching in the first place.

``My concern is to improve the flow, the mix of teachers who are entering the teaching field today,'' she says. ``You're not going to get the best and the brightest for all 21/2 million of our schools' teachers.''

She looks with favor on the current experimentation in alternative teacher-certification practices in states like New Jersey and California, where a local school district may hire someone to teach who has a college degree, but who hasn't taken college-level courses in education. She says she is comfortable with some ``messiness around the edges'' in the teacher-training process because the school reform movement now under way is a very complex matter and calls for some alternative approaches.

``I think it is harder to teach at the lower level than the college level . . . and it's harder today than it was when I started teaching in a high school 30 years ago,'' she says, recalling her first teaching assignment near the Dismal Swamp in Deep Creek, Va.

But there are two things that can be done to guarantee high academic standards right now, she says. First, provide a basic level of competence for all of the teacher corps and continually weed out those who don't measure up to it. Second, strive ``to make sure in that teaching force . . . there is a minority of really extraordinary teachers,'' Dr. Graham said in a meeting with Monitor editors here recently.

At present, the person more likely to go into teaching is someone who, in college, thought of teaching as a fallback job. Then, having done nothing else but go to school, he or she chooses teaching.

``The conventional pattern of the beginning teacher is a person whose SAT scores rank in the bottom quartile [25 percent], whose grade-point average ranks in the bottom quartile, and who's never done anything but go to school and not do very well at that. . . . [That] is not a promising prospect for [good] teachers,'' she says.

Where can good teachers be found?

``In nontraditional types,'' says Dr. Graham, likening this latter group to a necessary yeast for good schools.

``We found at Harvard that there are a lot of mid-career people who would like to make a career change,'' she says. Harvard received 600 inquiries for 20 openings next fall in its mid-career master's program for math and science teachers.

Dr. Graham does not believe it is just the Harvard name that is attracting talented people. Dual-career professional couples now have more choices, she says.

Either spouse can decide to teach in mid-life and be able to do so without a drastic economic effect. It is no longer unusual for a woman to make a large enough salary to free her husband to switch jobs and become teachers, says Dr. Graham. People remember teachers who changed their lives, and want to do the same.

Studies show that for the majority of already practicing teachers, working conditions are the first issue of importance for coming into and staying in the profession. Money is second. There is no reason to expect a different ordering of priorities for mid-career teachers, she says.

We also have to attract the 21- to 25-year-olds who traditionally have not gone into teaching, she says. The group she has in mind are the above-average biology or chemistry majors who haven't made up their minds what they want to do after they graduate. Schools should get a crack at having such talented individuals for teachers. They are bright and will teach for four years or so before moving on in their fields of research, she says, leaving behind a more enriched classroom.

This fall, Harvard begins an undergraduate teacher training program tailored for this type of student. It will entail only three education courses, two of which will have a strong classroom practicum. Otherwise, a student will take a full schedule of regular academic courses.

This is a departure for this elite institution, which in the past has trained mostly university professors and school administrators. Dr. Graham trusts the Harvard name on the degree will result in the State of Massachusetts issuing teaching certificates to graduates.

``Teachers need to be rock-solid competent in the subject they want to teach,'' says Graham. Given the choice of hiring a high school teacher who has a comprehensive knowledge of a subject as opposed to someone with an intensive, in-depth knowledge of a particular subject, ``I'll take intensive any day,'' she says.

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

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