A Key Reason Why American Students Do Poorly

Although some young Americans graduate from high school with superb academic skills, a great many leave high school with pathetic abilities in crucial areas: reading, writing, basic math, and reasoning. One of the key reasons why that’s so is that many of their teachers are not very good themselves. Yes, they have their college degrees, but those degrees are easily acquired by some of the weakest students colleges admit.

An article in the October 24 Wall Street Journal, “ Why Teacher Colleges Get a Flunking Grade” by Barbara Nemko and Harold Kwalwasser illuminates the problem. They write that “entrance requirements to most colleges of education are too lax, and the requirements for graduation are too low.”

They’re right. The trouble with colleges of education, where most American teachers receive their training (although that’s hardly an apt description) has been known for a long time. Back in 1991, Rita Kramer’s book Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers showed that our ed schools were giving the country a steady stream of intellectually mediocre teachers who had been steeped in dubious educational theories, but often knew little about the subject matter they were to teach. Since then, an avalanche of criticism has come down on education schools, but the only changes have been cosmetic.

But if the product of these schools is so poor, why isn’t there pressure for serious change? The answer is that they are protected by state licensing laws that make it very hard for public school officials to hire anyone who doesn’t have the obligatory credentials. In short, the ed schools have a guaranteed market and are shielded from competition. The professors and administrators are happy with the way things are, and often express resentment at anyone who suggests that their courses and philosophy do not lead to competent teachers.

One of the problem areas identified by Nemko and Kwalwasser is math. In 2010, the average education school student had a math SAT score of only 486 (compared with an average of 516 for all freshmen). Weak knowledge of math could probably be overcome if the schools thought it to be important, but they don’t. “Too often, these future educators learn to ‘teach’ math, but they don’t necessarily learn how to do the math itself,” the authors write.

That observation dovetails with that of math teacher Barry Garelick, who was already a good mathematician but needed to go through ed school to get the credential he had to have before he could teach math in a local high school. He wrote about his experiences in this piece published last August by my organization, the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Garelick summed up his argument against the approach to math instruction favored by the education establishment: “The ed school approach to teaching math seeks to minimize ‘inauthentic’ learning by replacing it with so-called ‘authentic’ exercises. But presenting students with a steady diet of challenging problems that neither connect immediately with their prior knowledge, lessons and instruction, nor develop any transferrable skills results in poor learning.”

It isn’t just math where the ed schools flunk. The curriculum is saturated with, as Nemko and Kwalwasser note, “endless discussions of theories about how we learn—which won’t seem very relevant to a struggling first-year teacher.” To get a good sense of the nature of classroom experience of students in our ed schools, read Heather Mac Donald’s sharp essay, “Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Teach,” which illuminates the “progressive” theorizing that is all too common.

If you wonder why so few young Americans can write a coherent paragraph, the ed schools have a lot to do with that. Under “progressive” educational thinking, it supposedly dampens the students’ creativity and spontaneity to insist on following fuddy-duddy old rules about composition and English usage. Besides that, most of the prospective teachers are not very good at writing themselves, having come through schools where they were taught by teachers who were told that it’s bad to fuss over writing.  We are caught in a downward spiral of falling competence.

Nemko and Kwalwasser suggest two changes. First, don’t allow aspiring teachers to major in education. Make them take a real academic major instead.  (That is the approach at one school, Hillsdale College, and the head of Hillsdale’s education program discussed it in this article.)

That would be a good start. It’s worth noting that in Japan there are no education majors, or even education schools. All prospective teachers must take a real academic degree and then apply for a teaching apprentice position. By all accounts, the Japanese system leads to highly competent teachers, although fewer of them than in the United States. They get better educational results with relatively large classes taught by experts than we do with small classes that are often taught by teachers of low ability.

Secondly, the authors suggest that school districts be given the money and authority to run their own teacher training programs. That would also be a good step, since many local school officials are unhappy with the quality of the teachers they have to choose from. A good example is Nancy Ichinaga, who was the principal of an inner-city Los Angeles school. She told Lance Izumi and Gwynne Coburn of the Pacific Research Institute, “Teachers who have gone through the credential programs at the colleges come with baggage. They think they know better because they’ve been brainwashed and those are the teachers with whom we have trouble.” (Link to that paper available here.)

To those policy changes, I would add one more: abolish existing teacher licensing requirements. Having gone through an ed school program is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for teacher preparation. We ought to allow public school officials to set their own standards for hiring  — and just as important, give them a free hand to fire teachers who prove to be incompetent, even though that means a mammoth battle with the teacher unions. Private schools succeed in employing excellent teachers and even those that operate on very thin budgets get educational results that put their heavily funded public counterparts to shame. We should allow public officials the same freedom they have.

This is one more case where open competition would lead to much better results than government regulation and control.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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