The trouble with teacher training

Among the successful attacks on President Bush’s education bill, already mauled by the education establishment and its pack of congressional Dobermans, is a provision to dump more federal money into training “certified” teachers. I suggest that a large part of the explanation for the poor student performance, however, is the fact that our teacher-education programs are often worse than useless.

Professor E.D. Hirsch’s 1996 book The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them traced the source of our educational malaise to the influence of Teachers College at Columbia University. There, “progressive” education ideas, such as the notion that kids must be largely left free to “construct their own knowledge,” took root early in the last century, were absorbed into the mental framework of the educationists, and now saturate the courses prospective teachers must take in order to become certified to teach.

Education Professor David Saxe of Penn State was commissioned by the Colorado Council of Higher Education to study the ed schools there to determine whether they were meeting the standards set by the state for such institutions. Saxe’s report is a real eye-opener.

According to Saxe, the education program at the University of Colorado at Boulder are accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which requires an institution to embrace the “progressive” faddishness that he and other believers in traditional pedagogy decry. Saxe wrote that the program at UC was “systematically shaped by progressive theories of social justice,” with most of the courses characterized by “excessive proselytizing” and “strident indoctrination of students.”

Proselytizing for what? The NCATE think schools’ top goal is to right society’s wrongs (from the leftist perspective) rather than to teach children fundamental skills and knowledge. Saxe quotes one prominent educationist who writes that “teaching and teacher education are fundamentally political activities and it is impossible to teach in ways that are not political and value-laden.” Schools should “help students understand and prepare to take action against social and institutional inequities that are embedded in our society.” In other words, forget the Three R’s; saturate the kids with liberal ideology.

The syllabus for a beginning education course at CU states that “we will be examining general curriculum issues, questions about teacher professionalism, academic success and race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and power.” Other course syllabi reinforce the school’s interest in turning out young “social justice” activists, not teachers competent in instructing youngsters in reading, mathematics, and so on.

Two facts make the Colorado report particularly relevant to North Carolina. First, former Governor Jim Hunt is NCATE’s chairman, and second, all of the education schools in the UNC system are NCATE accredited. Clearly we need our own study on the nature and content of teacher education. Could one of the reasons for our poor showing nationally in student learning be that our public school teachers are taught that coaching kids on all of society’s supposed inequities is more important than teaching them to read, write and think well?

The education establishment wants to “professionalize” teaching by compelling all teachers to go through the portals of “accredited” schools like the University of Colorado — which, by the way, Professor Saxe recommended be closed down. A test of the market gives good reason to believe that such teacher training gives us not better teachers, but worse ones. Schools that can choose between hiring “certified” teachers with education degrees or individuals who have degrees in other fields tend to prefer the latter. A study done by Professor Caroline M. Hoxby of Harvard found that private-school administrators preferred applicants without ed school credentials over applicants with them.

That is to say, schools that rely on good teaching to keep students (paying customers) would rather have someone, for example, with a degree in mathematics whom they believe can conduct good math classes than an ed-school grad who would shrink in terror from a polynomial equation. When quality is at stake, schools evidently put little stock in education school.

One of the few renegades in the field of education who disdain the “progressive” orthodoxy, James Fraser, Northeastern University’s Education School dean, recently challenged the education establishment to “address the reality that teacher certification has lost its legitimacy.” His solution: allow schools and school districts to hire whomever they think will make the best teacher, regardless of “teaching certificate.” Let competition work. Give school administrators the freedom — and incentives — to make good hiring decisions. We would then get better teachers than under our current system, which discriminates against anyone who hasn’t put in his time listening to education professors yammering away on the need to turn classrooms into platforms for social justice activism.

Freedom would vastly improve our education system if only we would allow it.