The Bozo Syndrome
I was in a dean's meeting, an event that has been predictable lately only in the dull rehash of bad news. The budget was in crisis, faculty disgruntled, student numbers way up, but the state was cutting our funding, anyway. For the first time all semester, I actually had an agenda—I was trying to push through what I thought would be an easy sell—approval for a course substitution. Currently, students seeking a degree in liberal arts (also known as elementary education) had to take a course called Chemistry and Society. Nobody in the chemistry department wanted to teach it, and the course had received consistently horrendous reviews from students over the past five years. I wanted to replace it with a course in Environmental Education. The professor who would teach the environmental education course was taking a year’s sabbatical at the internationally renowned Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. He had been on fire about teaching elementary-age children about the complex interactions among science, nature, and human progress. In light of the unabashedly anti-conservationist policies of the Bush administration—snowmobiles in Yellowstone, repeal of the clean air act, opening the nation’s forests to loggers, loosening of standards for meat and agricultural products—the need for environmental education seemed greater than ever. However, his zeal for teaching students younger than college age prompted his dean in the sciences to suggest in no uncertain terms that he relocate himself from the Department of Environmental Sciences to the Department of Teacher Education. So, he did.
Changing a course involved compiling a tome of paperwork, but it was standard procedure for the deans to look over the materials, ask a few, polite questions, and sign off. In case there would be questions (and I did not anticipate any), I attached copies of the state guidelines in science and the standards promulgated by the National Science Teachers Association with specific passages highlighted in yellow to show that the new course would be better all the way around.
As soon as I proposed the change, a dean spoke out against it. "We can't have all these courses with an education prefix. The state will discredit the education program, and we will become the laughingstock of higher education. Already, the state has suggested that our elementary school teachers do not have enough upper level courses in science."
I explained that prospective elementary teachers already took courses in chemistry, physics, biology, geology, and geography. If they took any more courses in science, they may as well go pre-med.
The dean was livid. "Suppose the environmental scientist recently transferred to teacher education leaves. Then, what are you going to do? Hire some bozo with a doctorate in education to teach the course?"
And there it was: bozo with a doctorate in education.
The bozo syndrome continues to undermine teacher education at every level. Those afflicted with it are often the severest of critics of public education, yet most have not set foot in a K-12 classroom since they graduated from high school.
As an undergraduate, my advisor warned me not to “go bozo” and waste my time with teaching but to take my English degree and go straight to grad school. I became a teacher anyway, but eventually resigned my position to pursue an MBA, just to prove I could, I suppose. Upon graduation, I landed a plum of a position with a top firm but found business less satisfying and less challenging than teaching school. Although I enjoyed the real lunch break that came with my new job, I concluded that I had done more good in ten minutes as a teacher than I could have in ten years flailing away at my post in corporate America. So, even though I was doing well, I took a 70% pay cut and went back to teaching.
I taught for five more years, then went away to pursue the doctorate. In my second semester in the doctoral program in English Education at the University of Texas at Austin, the bozo syndrome re-emerged when a professor from the English department took me aside and asked, “Why do want to slum through teacher education?” He suggested that I transfer to the doctoral program in English. Furthermore, he had a topic already picked out for me--transgender allusions in the works of James Joyce. At the time, I was working as a long-term substitute teacher at a middle school. The very day he tried to recruit me for transgender allusions, one of my middle school students had tried to commit suicide, one had written me a love note, a parent called to complain about my most recent assignments, and a student thanked me for showing her the wonders of poetry. I loved Joyce, but poring over books looking for references to gender lacked a certain urgency. On the other hand, I was pretty sure that if I left my fifth period class unsupervised for five minutes, the gates of hell would be thrown wide open and there would be no getting them shut again.
Despite the responsibilities of the job, teaching has never been able to shake the Bozo rap. A few years ago, a salary study at an institution where I was then working revealed a great disparity between the pay among professors in teacher education and faculty in other schools. The survey discovered that the salaries of faculty in teacher education were more than 40% below comparable positions in business. When the differences in wages were pointed out to the president, he responded, “The faculty in teacher education enjoy the lifestyle of a professor just the same as those in business.” Lifestyle? Faculty in education also taught two more courses per year and had more students in each class than faculty in business. The dean in teacher education made 20% less than any other dean. Yet, the tuition costs to pursue a degree in teacher education were the same as those for students who majored in business.
Part of the problem is that the reputation of the teaching profession continues to wither. While legislators and high profile politicians keep preaching about quality, they promote policies that allow anyone with a pulse to go into teaching. In Texas, of the 111 locations that have permission to provide credentials for teachers, less than half are institutions of higher education. Increasingly, teachers are getting their education on the fly at regional service centers and schools, themselves. Because of the proliferation of such easy-entry programs, the K-12 hiring process has become more about filling open slots with warm bodies than preparing qualified teachers for lifelong careers.
Most certification programs provided by school districts amount to two weeks of “quick-fix training” in July for anyone holding a bachelor’s degree in any field followed by full-time, salaried, solo teaching in August. In comparison, college programs typically require numerous kinds of field experiences over a period of two or three years, a slate of relevant courses, and 6-12 months of unpaid, full-time internship before students get their very own classroom. Is it any wonder that the numbers of teachers seeking alternative certification are growing at exponential rates? In some schools, alternatively certified personnel outnumber teachers with honest-to-goodness college credentials. The Internet has made inroads as well. More than 60% of all recently minted administrators in Colorado have obtained their degrees not from the University of Colorado or Colorado State, but from The University of Phoenix.
Although teachers have been given the sacrosanct responsibility of developing the intellectual and social capital of the country, almost anyone can certify teachers—and they do. The education and experience of the adults entrusted to care for our children has become superfluous in relation to what most legislators perceive as more pressing needs, such as vouchers, testing, and more testing.
As you might have guessed, the deans voted down my request for a new EDUC
course. Instead, a compromise was suggested. The new course, focusing on
teaching elementary-age children—required of all education majors and taught by
education faculty—could be approved, but the prefix must identify it as a
science course. I know I’m just a bozo, but I simply can’t grasp that logic.