A Tale of Two Nations and Their Future Teachers:
A few years ago, the Rude Pundit was an English professor at a not bad, not great Midwestern university. Many of his students wanted to go on to be elementary and high school English teachers. He remembers distinctly one student, call her "Jenny" because that's not her name. Jenny was not bright. Her papers in this lit course were filled with errors and sentences so incoherent that they made Sarah Palin seem like Judith Butler.

A senior, she was shocked that her writing was so bad. The Rude Pundit asked her how other professors had not brought this to her attention, and she said she had always done well enough, getting by with Bs and Cs. Instead of thinking that she needed help, she insisted that the Rude Pundit was grading her too harshly. You'll just have to take his word for it that he was not. When she revised her papers, she made as many errors. When she took tests, she wrote answers that were not in any way connected to the questions or a realistic notion of comprehension.

However, she was in her last semester of school before she went into student teaching, which was the last step before she achieved her dream of becoming a full-time elementary school teacher. When the Rude Pundit learned that, he was appalled. He had taught mediocre education students before, but this was beyond the pale. The idea that she would be teaching children how to write actually sickened him. He spoke to other professors about her, and they all said the same thing, which could be reduced to, "Yeah, but what are you gonna do?"

The Rude Pundit flunked her because that was the grade she earned. She angrily confronted him about how he was delaying her becoming a teacher because she would have to take the course again. He replied, "You have no business being a teacher until you learn how to write." She took the course again with another professor, who passed her. Right now she is teaching 5th graders. He knows many other excellent schoolteachers who would find her reprehensible.

Flash forward a year later. The Rude Pundit is overseas in Denmark. He's been brought there to teach interactive political theatre workshops at a couple of colleges or "seminariums." The seminariums he visited were devoted to teaching teachers how to teach. There are eighteen such schools in Denmark, and they train new teachers, who must already have degrees from colleges, and offer in-service additional training to established teachers. In other words, you better be good or you're not teaching the children of Denmark. And why do people do it? Because Denmark values teaching, paying the people who do it well, keeping schools in good shape, and more.

The students the Rude Pundit taught there were not special in terms of the seminariums. But they were incredible. They asked him questions about U.S. involvement in the wars. They developed and performed pieces about torture and sexual harassment and school policies without any prompting. They questioned, constantly, everything about power and authority. And they wrote English better than most of his students back home. He wanted these students to be teachers. Any one of them would have been excellent in the classroom.

This compare/contrast essay was prompted by an editorial in today's Washington Post by Matt Miller. In a thoughtful, ambitious piece, Miller avoids blanket condemnation of teachers' unions and instead focuses on a part of the puzzle that doesn't get as much attention: the actual way in which America gets teachers. Miller offers the shocking heresy that "The top performing school systems in the world have strong teachers unions at the heart of their education establishment." The difference is that "[t]he chief educational strategy of top-performing nations such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea is to recruit talent from the top third of the academic cohort into the teaching profession and to train them in selective, prestigious institutions to succeed on the job."

What Miller proposes is a radical alteration in the way the United States approaches the profession of teaching, which he and Paul Kihn offered last year. And it has nothing to do with bullshit bandages like charter schools, school choice, and privatization. No, in fact, it's quite the opposite. It's to treat education like the foundation of a strong society that it actually is:

"What about starting salaries of $65,000 rising to $150,000 for teachers (and more for principals)? And federally funded 'West Points' of teaching and principal training to model for the nation how it can be done? And new federal cash for poor districts now doomed by our 19th-century system of local school finance, so they can compete in regional labor markets for the talent that today gravitates to higher-paying suburbs? And shrinking today’s 15,000 unwieldy, archaic local school districts (where we’re also an international outlier) to, say, a more manageable 60 — one in each state plus 10 big urban districts?"

Miller and Kihn put the cost at $30 billion a year. Or roughly 4.5% of the current military budget. Which means it'll never happen. And we will continue to try to cobble together our education system through bits and pieces and budget cuts and private companies instead of actually behaving as if it matters.