Teacher quality is a security issue


Editor’s note — This following column is an updated article originally written by contributing columnist Bill Sims and published by Education Week on April 2, 2014.

Years ago, when I first started teaching in a northern New Hampshire town, I had an English class of seniors whose body language clearly communicated that they didn’t want to be in school. By outward appearances, their only aspirations were to join their parents working at the Brown Paper Co., a mill on the Androscoggin River.

Fresh out of a college secondary “methods” class, I was ill equipped to teach kids who came to class to gaze at the ceiling, trade notes, and draw on their desks. One boy’s math book got smaller day by day, and I eventually discovered that he entertained himself and his peers by eating all of the assigned pages.

One girl who never had her books or her homework was so doleful I decided to stop by her home one evening to talk with her parents. What I found was a house with broken windows, children living and sleeping in the kitchen with the stove for a heater, and missing parents who lived in the local bars. Here was my “underachieving” young girl, taking care of all her siblings — and I had issues with her homework.

While the Puritans were steadfast in their beliefs that public education was important, it wasn’t until Horace Mann began to push for free and compulsory public education that he helped to effect a free and compulsory education law in the state of Massachusetts in 1852. By 1918,all states required all children to attend at least elementary school. It came to pass that Horace Mann was put to rest nearby in Yellow Springs, Ohio in 1859.

Training teachers to be effective has always been a difficult task, as evidenced by my long-ago classroom experience. But training teachers to be effective in the 21st century is more complex than ever before.

Transformational technologies are bombarding classrooms faster than schools of education can keep up. As principal of an elementary school almost 50 years ago, when personal computers were first beginning to appear in schools, I made the curious assumption that they belonged in the math department, and asked the department chair to formulate a curriculum. He rebelled and the computers wound up in the library.

Yet this column is not just about conquering the challenges of technology in colleges of education and the classrooms of America. Think ChatGPT… which magically writes essays for students. It’s about how we in America can maintain our leadership in this era of great-power competition.

One way to reframe the complex teacher-preparation conversation is to view public education as a national-security issue. To put this simply, the smarter our people are, the better the chance that we maintain our edge in critical areas. Those with expertise on Russia (Russologists) are saying that so far Russia’s biggest losses in the war on Ukraine are not soldiers and tanks but the educated elite who have fled the country in droves.

Jessica T. Matthews, the former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace made this relevant observation in a review of Henry Kissinger’s new book, “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy,” in Foreign Affairs magazine: “National borders are infinitely more porous; crucial assets now lie outside nation-states; the influence of nongovernmental actors, from CARE to criminals, is immensely larger; the Cold War is over; nuclear arsenals, cheap cyberweapons, and a disrupted climate all pose existential threats; and the relative power of the United States is far less than it was when Kissinger served in government.”

The U.S. needs smart, well-educated citizens in our pipeline of political leaders, corporate leaders, scientists and citizens. It’s about how we maintain our leadership in an increasingly competitive world that challenges us economically, militarily and ideologically.

Which brings me to a modest proposal I first put forth in the pages of Education Week eight years ago. The U.S. spent $801 billion on defense in 2021. That represents 39% of the world’s military spending. That’s more than the next nine combined in order of spending — $776 billion — and those would be: China ($290 billion), India, UK, Russia, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea.

How about a 1% reallocation of this military budget to our public education system, an $8 billion dollar investment in our citizens’ capacity to compete in the 21st century. Here’s the deal. If we want the best and the brightest professionals teaching our kids we have to pay them to stay in their classrooms commensurate with other highly qualified professionals. We need teachers who understand the new learning environments manifest in this highly competitive and technologized world.

Pundits tell parents, teachers and administrators that kids are learning more (never mind what) out of school than in school, that kids “power down” when they get to school and “power up” when they leave school.

The right response to all of this is that we need to entice the strongest candidates into the teaching profession. Increasingly, “soft power” is rivaling military power as strategic in maintaining leadership among rivals. Smart kids are the strategic ammo that will drive our economic, ideological and military advantage.

In countries like Finland, Singapore and many European nations, teaching’s allure comes from an amalgam of substantial incentives such as college scholarships for teaching degrees, salary subsidies for teachers’ salaries, as well as strategic investments in research, public universities and community colleges. Eight billion dollars a year would go a long way to fueling our nation’s human capital and resourcefulness.

Horace Mann was right. Public education is the best investment we make in our progeny and posterity. It’s worth the transfer of 1% of our $801 billion in defense spending.

Could I have been better prepared to deal with my math-book gourmet from New Hampshire? Probably. But today’s times are 10 times more challenging than yesteryear and will require an uber-reform effort. We need the best and the brightest in America’s educational trenches fighting for us.

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

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