What Makes a Teacher?

Alarming commission reports on the state of the nation's schools have been de rigueur since the archetype, "A Nation at Risk," was issued in 1983. Most of them underscore areas of genuine concern, but they seldom give the whole picture or chart a foolproof path toward improvement.

The report of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, released late last week, was in this long tradition. To take its findings at face value would be to look at the neighborhood schools with some horror. A quarter of the teachers in US public schools enter the classroom with inadequate training in the subject they're going to teach, the commission found. Fewer than half the schools of education in the country qualify for professional accreditation.

But wait a minute. Are the college transcripts of prospective instructors the only way of determining if someone is ready to teach a subject? And are schools of education the best means of developing good teachers?

Academic preparation is only one part, and quite probably not the biggest part, of readying someone to face a class of second-graders or twelfth-graders. Developing a rapport with students, mastering the delicate art of discipline, finding inspiration in a child's experience of learning - these aspects of teaching have never, strictly speaking, been teachable. Yet they're indispensable.

If the more rigorous professional standards called for by the commission are misapplied, they might even hinder excellence in teaching instead of fostering it. The country doesn't need a more bureaucratically airtight system of choosing its teachers.

Teaching needs an atmosphere to develop free of orthodoxies - even as it's held, vigorously, to a standard of accountability. Teachers have to show results - quite a different thing from having to show credentials.

Certainly, we couldn't agree more with the commission's point that improved teaching has to be at the heart of genuine reform. Let's just keep an open mind about how teachers become effective partners in learning.

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