Good News/Bad News on Education Schools

Back in October, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech that surprised and pleased many in the education reform community. Speaking at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Duncan said that we need to “raise the bar” for teacher training programs so that we’ll have a new generation of teachers ready to “significantly boost student learning and increase college readiness.”

We at the Pope Center agree with that objective. In 2008 we released a paper by retired education professor George Cunningham. He argued that education schools generally do a poor job of training new teachers because they herd their students through an intellectually weak curriculum that has more to do with political ideology than with the ideal methods for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. As a result, in schools throughout America—and not just in economically depressed areas—we find teachers who are incapable of conveying the knowledge and skills that students need.

Duncan couched his speech in an upbeat “We need to do better” mode rather than taking a sharply critical line. Maybe he was just being polite, but I suspect that the absence of pointed criticism indicates that he doesn’t realize how bad many of our teachers (and the ed schools that prepared them) really are. I doubt that he has ever read any of the many books that take a no-holds-barred approach to bad teaching, for example Sol Stern’s Breaking Free. In it, Stern recounts his parental frustration as he came to know what happens in “elite” public schools in New York City.

Here’s a revealing paragraph:

Dani’s social studies teacher favored the project method even more than the other Wagner teachers because she was incapable of imparting any actual history lessons to the students. Whenever there was any substantive discussion in the class, she was frequently contradicted by a student and had trouble holding her own. She constantly misspelled words on the blackboard and became annoyed when these errors were called to her attention. She once went on for nearly an hour about the “Albanian genocide” after one of the children pointed out that it was the Armenian people who were slaughtered by the Turks.

When Secretary Duncan says that most ed schools “are doing a mediocre job,” that’s putting it mildly. Many teachers are themselves lacking in the knowledge and skills we expect them to pass along to students. Duncan’s view of the ed school problem is like that of a doctor with a patient suffering from leukemia saying, “Gosh—you don’t look well. Better take some vitamins to perk up.”

In his speech, Duncan gave a number of reasons why he believes that ed schools are under-performing.

He quotes famed Columbia University professor Jacques Barzun, who wrote long ago in his book Teacher in America that “teacher training is based on a strong anti-intellectual bias, enhanced by a total lack of imagination.” Sadly, Duncan fails to elaborate on Barzun’s observation, which dates from 1944. Is it still the case that ed schools have an “anti-intellectual bias”? Many critics of ed schools say that such bias is deeply ingrained today. Read, for example, Heather Mac Donald’s devastating essay “Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Teach” where she describes the vacuous, often politicized classes that prospective teachers are required to take.

Does Secretary Duncan agree with Barzun’s observation or apply it to ed schools today? We never find out because he moves swiftly along to another criticism, namely that ed schools tend to go in for theories that are “obscure, faddish, out-of-touch, politically correct.” The only elaboration Duncan gives, however, is an anecdote involving University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch, an advocate of traditional, content-based teaching. Years ago, Hirsch taught a course in Virginia’s ed school but was puzzled that very few students enrolled in it. That puzzlement ended when a student told him that other faculty members were advising students not to take his course because it ran counter to their pedagogical beliefs.

That’s a terribly revealing point. If ed school professors are so fixed in their belief in the need for “child-centered” classes where students “construct their own knowledge” that they advise against taking even one course from an esteemed traditionalist, reforming ed schools will be extremely difficult. But Duncan skips on without examining the obstacles posed by entrenched and blinkered ed school faculty.

Another point Duncan makes (and does develop at some length) is the alleged need for more research on education. He observes that ed schools usually have rather large enrollments yet low expenses compared with other programs, thus making them “profit centers.” The trouble is that universities divert the profits into more prestigious programs and under-invest in educational research.

America is not suffering from a shortage of educational research, however. Ed school professors keep producing papers and reports to bolster their “progressive” theories and advocates of traditional methods, such as phonics-based reading and Direct Instruction, demonstrated years ago that those methods are far more effective. Their research is mostly ignored by ed school professors who are heavily invested in their notions about teaching and learning. No, more research is not what the country needs if it is to improve its teachers.

Consider the most basic of all academic skills, reading. Back in 2000, the report of the National Reading Panel identified the crucial components of sound reading instruction, including phonemic awareness, oral reading, and vocabulary building. Unfortunately, that report has had little impact on most education schools

One group that has been diligently studying ed schools is the National Council on Teacher Quality ( Last March, NCTQ released a study on Indiana’s ed schools. That report concluded that most of that state’s ed schools “ignore the science of reading or treat it as an approach no more valid than others.” If the education schools in a conservative state like Indiana are still cold-shouldering the recommendations of the National Reading Panel, will more research break down the barricades?

Nevertheless, Duncan proclaims his optimism. His approach to change is based on his belief that the states, lured by federal “Race to the Top” money, will adopt programs to link student learning outcomes with their teacher’s education school program, thereby enabling us to identify which ed school programs are producing good results and which ones aren’t. The happy outcome Duncan envisions is that once the poor programs have been identified, they’ll be “encouraged to shape up or shut down.”

I’m skeptical that Secretary Duncan’s approach will bring about much improvement. Assume that states take the federal money, set up these evaluative programs, and then see that certain of their ed schools are graduating teachers whose students do poorly on basic tests. Then what happens? Will the heads of those schools lay down the law to the faculty, saying, “Drop your preoccupation with discredited fads and ideological indoctrination and start teaching proven, traditional methods”?  Not likely. Administrators and faculty will probably find dozens of excuses for poor scores and argue vociferously that the problem isn’t with them.

Or will state legislators take the bull by the horns and mandate that ed schools either change or lose their funding? Again, not very likely. Politicians rarely pull the plug on any program. Even the weakest of ed schools is apt to have legislative defenders who will protect them as long as they claim they’re making progress.

We can, of course, hope, but I don’t think we’ll see much real change as a result of the policies Secretary Duncan advocates.

Oddly enough, he mentioned in his speech the key word for those who are serious about turning ed schools from part of the problem into part of the solution. Here’s the sentence: “Transparency, longitudinal data, and competition can be powerful tonics for programs stuck in the past.” The key word is competition. That must be the main line of attack on all sorts of schools that don’t perform well.

Early in his speech, Duncan noted that there are “high-quality alternative certification routes” such as Teach for America, but they produce fewer than 10,000 teachers per year. So why not encourage their growth? Why not advocate that every state liberalize its teacher licensing laws so principals can hire teachers based on what they know and can do, not on whether they have approved education credentials? That’s the best way to facilitate competition for ed schools—take away their near monopoly on training teachers.

Unfortunately, competition is anathema to the education establishment.

It’s good that Secretary Duncan is showing an interest in improving ed schools, but I don’t think he understands the depth of the problem and has not adopted a path that will yield results.