View from here - Don't envy this state of emergency

29th May 2009 at 01:00
British politicians have got the US teacher training all wrong, says James Thouron

In downtown Philadelphia last Wednesday, the bus driver's mood was buoyant. "I've got a new job, teaching in north Philadelphia," he said. The next day, I watched another "emergency-certified" teacher deliver a lesson on the abolition of slavery. Later that evening, listening to a BBC podcast from home, I heard a British politician deride PGCE courses for "wasting" too much time on studying pedagogy. Worryingly, British politicians seem to believe the US is doing better at getting "more top graduates" into schools.

In fact, the large numbers of emergency-certified teachers in America's poorest schools speak volumes about how the job suffers from low status and poor pay. The US is desperately trying to professionalise teachers and improve their status by providing alternative means of recruitment. There is a growing realisation that the problem lies with the schools of undergraduate education, which have set a low bar for entry and provide inadequate training for their 100,000 graduates yearly.

Alternative programmes such as Teach for America - the inspiration for England's Teach First - have had some success rebranding the job as something only the best and brightest dare do. But the training is still far behind the one-year PGCE.

Ever since I arrived in the United States, I've been told that the appalling quality of many urban schools is not down to deprivation or the attitudes of pupils, but to the quality of the teaching. So I contacted a west Philadelphia school, offering to help with some history lessons.

The school is only a mile from the oldest Ivy League university, but it is surrounded by grinding poverty and racial segregation. Every two years, it loses half of its staff, many emergency certified and ill-equipped to deal with teaching in a school where only 6 per cent can read at the expected level.

I was prepared for the security guards, the wire mesh on every window, the self-locking doors and the metal detectors. What I hadn't expected was the total lack of inspiration. There were no signs of welcome, no work on the walls, nothing to denote it as a place of learning - just endless corridors of lockers. Yet, despite the school's appalling reputation, there were no fires blazing, no chairs through windows, just pupils eager to hear if every pupil in England wears a tie and blazer.

They worked quietly, with varying degrees of effort, from a 1,600-page textbook so heavy it could break a foot. The teaching was not good, but I don't want to disparage a fellow teacher as I've no doubt he would have been excellent had he been given more than four weeks' training. He received no support from colleagues and was isolated in his classroom, muddling through planning and assessing students who could barely read.

Reversing the fortunes of urban schools in the US will require a monumental shift in the calibre of teachers recruited and the quality of their training. So I'm appalled that British politicians are contemplating following the US's lead. If we value the education of our children, it is the last thing we should scrimp on when budgets tighten.

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