Who is Eugene W. Hickok and why is he telling school administrators in Auburn and throughout the nation who they can and cannot hire as teachers? Mr. Hickok is a federal Undersecretary in the Department of Education and he is probably right now sitting at a big brown desk in a big brown building somewhere in the hermetically-sealed Beltway sending authoritative missives to school districts across the Fruited Plain from 112th Street in New York to the Indian reservations of New Mexico.
It is tempting to shoot the messenger, but he is just following orders from the U.S. Congress. Mr. Hickok recently announced the issuance of regulations to federal legislation, the “No Child Left Behind Act,” that immediately bars schools with a preponderance of students from low-income families from hiring teachers with emergency credentials and requires all teachers in all schools to be fully credentialed by 2006.
What does that mean for us? California currently has 50,000 teachers with emergency credentials who are permitted to teach students in K-12 schools while they earn a teaching degree from California State University or the University of California. It looks like they could soon be out of job. Mr. Hickok hinted darkly in a newspaper interview that the federal government would eventually cut off education funds if schools continued to hire teachers with emergency credentials.
Don’t get me wrong, there are great teachers here in Auburn and around the state that earned their graduate teaching degrees and are fully credentialed. However, I do question whether we are, at a time of acute teacher shortages, unnecessarily deterring and placing barriers in front of other professionals who want to be great and dedicated teachers.
A great teacher knows and loves his or her subject of expertise and intellectually and passionately conveys the wonders of knowledge gathered from the ages to his or her students. I don’t think that Jaime Escalante, a man who dared to believe that poor Hispanic kids could learn calculus and go to college, got his inspiration in Pedagogy 101.
There are a few people who have looked at the credentialing process and are willing to buck the conventional wisdom. Chester E. Finn Jr., prolific author and President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation concluded in the report “The Quest for Better Teachers: Grading the States (November 1999) that “there is little connection between licensing requirements and high-quality teaching.” California’s bipartisan Little Hoover Commission, in the report “Teach Our Children Well,” (September 2001) found that “the credentialing process fails to screen out unqualified individuals and its complexity adds barriers for capable teachers trying to become certified to teach.”
Instead, the powers that be believe that the young woman with a mere bachelor’s degree in English Literature, who can inspire her inner-city students to read and recite Dante, Shakespeare and Longfellow, is an “unqualified” teacher and should be immediately removed from the classroom. The thirty-year old engineer with Hewlet-Packard, who would like to teach math and computer science to high school students for a few years before he retires, should be immediately banished to a Sun City golf course so he can yell “fore!” and break a few more windows.
Robert Maynard Hutchins, editor of the Great Books of the Western World wrote, “the aim of education is wisdom, and each must have the chance to become as wise as he can.” Federal and state officials should get out of the way and let school administrators hire knowledgeable and talented teachers, and allow great teachers to mentor new teachers who can lead and inspire the next generation of students to reach with out-stretched arms to the wisdom that awaits.
January 8. 2002