How do you know “throwing a bunch of money” at public education won’t help? We’ve never done it. 

There’s a faction of Americans who continually carp about education wasting its resources and, therefore, don’t deserve any more. Education in America needs change. But, there doesn’t seem to be any action plan coming from the “public schools are bad” bunch beyond starving public schools to bolster private schools with public money.

I don’t hold any animosity against folks who wish to pay the tuition to send their kids to private schools. There are a ton of reasons to do so as long as simply getting better results isn’t the only one. Overall, private and public schools test and achieve at about the same rate. There certainly are excellent private schools, just as there are excellent public institutions. Comparing one to the other, however, does not solve the perpetual problem of large numbers of schools being substandard–both private and public. Simply comparing one to the other in search of superior education is akin to a farmer weighing his pigs as a means of fattening them. Both schools and pigs need to be fed before they are evaluated.

“Schools should be cathedrals” is a quote from Sam Seaborn, Rob Lowe’s character on The West Wing. He’s right. As a country we should be sure our schools are safe, open, well equipped, and aesthetically alluring–so should roads be pothole free and bridges structurally sound. These are infrastructure issues that we have been unwilling to confront. We don’t seem to be able to put those issues out front when it comes to spending money–the only way to fix those problems.

That said, great schools have been conducted under oak trees. Real success isn’t a building with floor to ceiling windows or a computer lab fit for NASA. Helpful for sure, but not the critical element.

What is critical is teachers. 

Whether teaching in private or public schools, teachers need to be thoroughly trained. Just like physicians working in for-profit or public hospitals, or lawyers working for Legal Aid or on the 50th floor of a corporate office, they all need training before having any chance of success.

We often give lip service to elevating educators to professional levels, but never seem to get around to it. Ancient civilizations placed teachers on a pedestal, but modern America is unwilling to do so beyond rhetoric. It takes money because that’s how our society works. 

I’m unwilling to “throw money” at teachers’ salaries without a serious buyback and accountability beyond what we have today. This is an issue I can speak to as training teachers was a big part of my job for 12 of the 32 years I spent as an educator. I worked at two teacher training institutions that spent a lot of time and money doing research on how best to develop future teachers. In an effort to keep this column within the boundaries of not needing a binding and a bookmark, the short answer is this: time. Preservice teachers need to spend barrels full of time with real students in authentic school settings gleaning expertise and confidence. Both take time and effort to acquire.

Elementary educators need to be proficient in content far beyond literacy and math. They teach science, history, civics, geography, art, music, and on and on. Secondary teachers need to be miles deep in understanding their content area. Add the two together and a four-year, 120-hour education is insufficient. The best student teachers I ever supervised came from a program that required trainees to graduate with a baccalaureate degree and spend a fifth year working on teaching certification. When they got to their practice classroom, they were already college graduates and had an additional semester of strictly pedagogy study behind them. Of course, this program was cut–wait for it–due to money concerns.

Training teachers needs to be a commitment from student, institution, and community. We talk about education being a profession, but we don’t train teachers like professionals. Plumbers and electricians get substantial apprenticeships before earning a full-fledged union card. Those doctors and lawyers mentioned above attend schools far beyond undergraduate studies. We need to do the same for teachers. Their curriculum should be at least a two-year, post graduate academic program. Physician residencies are a year or two, depending on specialty, after medical school, and lawyers study for three additional years before taking a bar exam. Teachers need much more than the 16-week residency they spend in a classroom student teaching. 

Undergraduate education programs must concentrate on content and the professional school’s responsibility is pedagogy and understanding how children learn and develop. When finished with the professional education, newly minted teachers could be awarded a degree of Ed.D., much like the J.D. degree of a lawyer. In return for spending six years in training the beginning teacher salary needs to be doubled with the ability to eventually earn triple, or more, what they do now. The public’s assurance of excellence will be based on further depth of knowledge and competency through continuing education and up-to-date training or research during the weeks students are not in session. 

Communities can expect and demand competencies similar to those expected by other learned professionals. Throwing money wrapped in great expectations may indeed be education’s silver bullet.

Terry Donnelly is a retired teacher. He taught in public schools in Kentucky, Michigan, and Colorado. He was an adjunct faculty member instructing teachers and teacher trainees at Michigan State University, University of Colorado, and Adams State College in Colorado.