Teaching Teachers How Not to Teach

When Mom and Dad see little Sally’s report card, it probably never occurs to them to wonder how competent her teacher is. Teachers, after all, are professionals. They’re trained in university programs and licensed by the government, so they must be good at their jobs – right?

There is a surprising amount of disagreement over that. As long ago as 1953, Professor Arthur Bestor ridiculed education schools (where nearly all aspiring teachers must obtain their credentials) as “educational wastelands.” More recently, in her 1991 book Ed School Follies, Rita Kramer wrote, “What we have today are teacher-producing factories that process material from the bottom of the heap and turn out models that perform, but not well enough.”

Criticism of education schools doesn’t just come from outsiders. Some highly knowledgeable and vocal critics are to be found among the ranks of current and former education school professors. One of those critics is George Cunningham, who taught for many years at the University of Louisville. In a new paper for the Pope Center, Professor Cunningham explains why he does not believe that schools of education in North Carolina are doing an adequate job of training future teachers.

As he sees it, the great problem is that most of the American public holds to one view of the role of schools, while most of the education school elite – the deans and the professors – hold a very different view. The public overwhelmingly believes that the function of schools should be mainly academic – that is, to make sure that children learn very well the skills and knowledge that it takes to succeed in life. If you accept that view, then schools succeed only if their students graduate with a high degree of literacy, with proficiency in mathematics, with a good working knowledge of science, history, our social institutions, and so forth.

It follows that teacher training programs should ensure that their students are expert in teaching those things to young people. Someone who intends to teach math, for example, should be both well-versed in the field and well-trained in the techniques of explaining math to their students.

On the other hand, the dominant view among those who run and teach in our education schools is that the key role of schooling is to achieve various social objectives. In their opinion, it’s more important for teachers to properly adjust students’ outlook on life and society than to instruct them in “mere” knowledge and facts. Under that view, teachers who devote too much time to “rote learning” (for example, learning multiplication tables) are not doing a good job and a school could be performing poorly even though all its students have mastered the “3 Rs.” Cunningham writes that according to this theory, “a child’s education is successful if he is exposed to the right attitudes by teachers, even if he does poorly in measures of learning on reading, math, history, science, and so on.”

Cunningham has long observed the march of this “progressive” view through the nation’s education schools. His paper focuses on the University of North Carolina’s largest schools to see if the contagion is widespread here. He finds that it is.

One sign of that contagion is the mission statements and “conceptual frameworks” of the education schools in the state. Read them and you’ll see that progressive theory controls. At Appalachian State’s Reich School of Education, for instance, the conceptual framework says:

“We believe that theory should guide practice in all aspects of our work. While we use a variety of theoretical perspectives in the preparation of educators, socio-cultural and constructivist perspectives … are central to guiding our teaching and learning. Our core conceptualization of learning and knowing – that learning is a function of the social and cultural contexts in which it occurs (i.e., it is situated) and that knowledge is actively constructed – emerges from the intersection of these two perspectives.”

As a result of the dominance of progressive theory in our education schools, we find a good many courses devoted to instructing prospective teachers that they should be “change agents” helping to combat all manner of social ills. What we do not find are courses that emphasize the most effective ways of imparting knowledge to young people. Education school students are not taught about a proven approach to primary education called Direct Instruction, for example, because its focus is purely on academic mastery, leaving no scope for socio-cultural diversions.

Reading is the sine qua non of primary education. If a child doesn’t learn to read well, he will struggle in nearly everything. Through the work of the National Reading Panel, we have solid knowledge about the essentials for competent instruction in reading. How well do UNC education schools do in that regard? Cunningham reports on a 2006 study of 70 education schools nationwide that graded these schools on how many of the five key components of reading instruction they covered. Of the four UNC schools included (UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Greensboro, Fayetteville State, and Elizabeth City State), only UNC-Greensboro received a passing mark.

Cunningham comments, “Unfortunately, it is quite possible for a prospective teacher to graduate from an education school in North Carolina without having received solid training either in reading or math teaching.” The fact that things are just about as bad in other states is cold comfort.

In perhaps the most startling quotation in the paper, Cunningham quotes a principal from an inner-city school who says that as much as possible, she avoids hiring people who have been through education schools. She would rather hire someone who knows a subject and has the desire to teach it than someone with an education school diploma and a head full of “progressive” theories that waste precious time. If we want more effective teachers, we need to turn away from our current approach to teacher training. Read Professor Cunningham’s paper and see if you don’t agree.

George C. Leef is the vice president for research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.