No App Can Replace Mastery for Students or Teachers

By Allison Riddle

In May one of my colleagues retired after 25+ years of teaching. A master educator in the younger grades, she was responsible for helping hundreds of first graders learn to read. At her retirement luncheon I asked her how she knew it was the right time to retire. "That's easy," she replied, "It was the app."

She then recounted a troubling parent conference during which she recommended that the student's parents read nightly with their child. Instead of embracing the suggestion, the mother squirmed and offered excuses relating to work and family responsibilities. A minute later, the mom's face lit up. She grabbed her phone and asked in all seriousness, "Hey, is there an app for that?"

An app. To listen to her child read.

As humorous (or disturbing) as this may seem, my retiring friend went on to tell me that this was not an isolated incident. Frequently, parents ask if there is an app that can substitute for time spent helping their child master fundamental skills.

I believe her. Over the last ten years as a fifth grade teacher, I have noticed a change in attitudes about learning. Both students and parents have grown increasingly frustrated when asked to take time to rehearse and apply critical math and reading proficiencies. Our Generation Z students and their parents are used to retrieving information instantly and being entertained constantly. They do not understand that more is always needed to achieve mastery. Indeed, the ability to understand and apply many of the concepts introduced in school takes time and persistence. It is not enough to be able to instantly retrieve information if we are to fully develop essential skills. This generation doesn't seem to have the time or patience for this kind of deep learning.

They aren't the only ones. Our modern impatience extends, unfortunately, to the process of teacher credentialing. Many states now offer alternative routes to licensure that too quickly place fledgling teacher candidates in classrooms without having investigated best teaching practices. In some cases, prospective applicants need only meet a few requirements to obtain an initial license, sometimes simply earning a bachelor's degree and passing a content test. The hiring district must agree to provide some kind of mentoring for the new hire, but no courses on classroom management or pedagogical theory are expected for the applicant to begin teaching. Instead, we take shortcuts with essential skills.

That's right. It's like an app... for a teaching license.

I understand why many states have gone this route; most have endured years of rising attrition rates and are now faced with serious teacher shortages, particularly in rural and inner city districts. Many states are, in good faith, trying to ease the burden on those who would consider teaching.This slick process, however, does not focus on the real problem: attracting and retaining strong, credentialed teachers. It offers districts a temporary fix while creating greater challenges for individual schools that must mentor teaching candidates who have literally no pedagogical background.

A quick licensing route perpetuates the misconception that "Anyone can teach." Lessening the requirements for an entry-level license degrades the professionalism of teaching and disrespects the rigor required to obtain a professional license. Instead of seeking temporary fixes, individual states should seriously investigate solutions that offer teaching as a sustainable career choice and do the hard work to keep skilled teachers on the job. Teachers need competitive salaries, properly funded induction programs, opportunities for advancement and a respected voice in policy.

Really, there is no app for that.

Allison Riddle is the 2014 Utah State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She is the Elementary Mentor Supervisor for Davis District in Farmington, Utah.

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