Ed Schools, Leave Those Teachers Alone!

Will badly-needed real reform actually come to K-12 teachers education in North Carolina—or even the entire country?

For decades, it seems everybody has been pointing fingers at K-12 education as a major source of the nation’s problems: low high school graduation rates, declining literacy, the increasing need for college students to take remedial courses, and less understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. And the education establishment’s attempts at reform have either made the problem worse by introducing ill-conceived innovations that are doomed to produce failure, such as student-centered learning and whole language instruction, or have been too small to have much positive impact.

But at the April 8 Board of Governors meeting, armed with an impressive new piece of empirical evidence, University of North Carolina vice president of academic affairs Alan Mabe publicly questioned whether we might “want to rethink our entire way” of teacher education.

The new evidence is called “The Impact of Teacher Preparation on Student Learning in North Carolina Public Schools.” When Erskine Bowles assumed the presidency in the UNC system, he too pointed at K-12 education as such a major problem that he made its improvement his number one priority.

To that end, he commissioned UNC’s Carolina Institute for Public Policy to conduct the study. It was intended to identify the best teachers, and the best education schools, in the hopes that this information would then shed light on the best practices. As one of the lead researchers, UNC-Chapel Hill public policy professor Gary Henry, described it, the report’s purpose was to find “what kind of teachers get the most out of their pupils.”

Henry, East Carolina University education professor Charles Thompson, and their staff then produced a laudable document that yields considerable insight on K-12 education. The study examined North Carolina students’ incremental performances on standardized tests to see how much knowledge they gained in a specific year, then matched them with their teachers to determine the teachers’ effect. Statistical techniques were used to remove the effect of such extraneous influences as students’ prior achievement levels, their family incomes, teachers’ pre-college preparation, and so on.

Now that the study is complete, the next problems facing the system are those of interpretation and implementation. Will system officials be willing to admit and accept the rather glaring implications of the study, and will they be willing to face the wrath of the education establishment to make the necessary changes?

At the forefront of the study’s findings is the superior performance by the 310 participants in the federal Teach for America program. The program trains and places recent college graduates with non-education degrees in classrooms in low-income areas. The study showed that in five of nine measureable categories—overall high school, high school math, high school English, high school science, and middle school math, students with Teach for America teachers significantly outperformed students with UNC-trained teachers.  In high school social studies, middle school science, elementary school ready and elementary math, their performance was roughly equal to their UNC-trained peers. (In the other two categories, middle school algebra and science, there were not enough Teach for America participants to yield significant results).

In some cases, the Teach for America participants’ results were quite dramatic. For instance, middle school math students with Teach for America teachers tested as if they had an additional 90 days of instruction—when the entire school year is only 180 days of instruction.

So why do Teach for America participants perform so exceptionally well when they only receive six weeks of education training before entering the classroom, when their UNC education school counterparts get a full two years?

The most obvious reason for this is the fact that Teach for America participants are an extremely elite group academically, generally selected from the most prestigious colleges. For example, for three straight years, Teach for America has been the top employer of Duke University graduates.

In other words, the intellectual aptitude of the teacher matters. Smart teachers tend to produce well-educated children. They can learn the subject material rapidly and well, distinguish patterns of learning in their pupils and make adjustments on the fly, and can think of a variety of ways to communicate difficult concepts to aid their students’ comprehension.

Henry suggested that another reason for the success of Teach for America participants is that their training, however limited, is specifically geared toward the grade levels and course material they will be teaching. Other first-year teachers, on the other hand, often do their student teaching and preparation for grades other than the ones they finally teach.

However, if true, this training advantage should only apply to the first year in the classroom. Six weeks of training should not matter after a year or so of experience in the classroom for an intelligent person who is looking to master his or her craft.  Yet Teach for America participants continued to outperform the rest in subsequent years.

A third possible explanation is that the Teach for America participants excelled primarily at the high school and junior high levels, where the classes are subject-specific. Teach for America teachers most likely teach subjects closely aligned to their college majors. Perhaps the fact that they studied the subject matter intensively makes up for their lack of teacher preparation.

But there is a good possibility that the most valuable insights to be culled from the study might not be the good things Teach for America participants are taught during their brief six-week boot camp, but what is wrong with the way teachers are trained during their entire four years on campus. After all, these schools seem to add less human capital to their graduates than Teach for America accomplishes in six weeks.

A cursory look at UNC-Chapel Hill’s current elementary education program supports this observation. The first two years of the program are spent satisfying general education requirements and some additional area of concentration. Given the “smorgasbord” style of general education prevalent in the UNC system, this means that they are essentially taking electives for the first two years.

Actual elementary education programs begin in the fall of the junior year. Only four credit hours—one course—are devoted to teaching reading and writing, with two additional one-credit courses devoted to “Emergent Literacy for the Elementary Program” and “Literacy across the Curriculum for Elementary Education.” Math instruction gets one four-credit course, while science instruction gets just three hours.

Six total hours, however, are required for two courses that are essentially political:  “Working with Socially Diverse Families” and “Culture, Society, and Teaching.” A class in working with students whose native language is not English and another in working with students with learning disabilities eat up another six hours of instruction. The rest of the time is spent either in education theory (9 hours) or student teaching (15 hours).

Of course, there is considerable likelihood that political correctness and other distractions permeate even the hard-core instruction classes. For example, one professor on the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty who specializes in science instruction states in her official department biography that she questions whether science is indeed objective, and that it is instead dependent upon “factors like power, culture, race, gender and ethnicity of the participants involved in and learners of science.”

That professors with such absurd beliefs are hired and promoted at UNC (and the fact that “social justice” theories dominate the education leadership program) suggests that the entire world of teacher education has become so infused with incorrect assumptions and fatuous trendiness that even the best existing practices in our public schools will produce mediocrity. (This is not a North Carolina problem but a national problem.)

Perhaps Teach for America participants excel because they are “untainted” by the education school mindset. The higher education reform movement is filled with horror stories about how the demands for ideological conformity, the lack of intellectual rigor, the low standards, and the emphasis on mind-numbing pedagogy over substance have chased away many serious students from education departments.  Such mediocrity is empirically reflected by the way education majors historically earn the lowest average cores of any graduate discipline on their graduate record exams (GREs).

Some of the study’s findings were wholly anticipated, such as the revelation that inexperienced teachers perform poorly on average—it takes approximately five years before they are completely up to speed. (According to Henry, roughly one-half of all new teachers leave their jobs within five years.) Also, teachers teaching subjects other than the ones that they were trained to teach perform at subpar levels.

One major surprise was the relatively weak performance by “lateral entry” teachers.  Lateral entry is a relatively new source of teachers that permits people with non-education degrees to be hired as teachers, as long as they work toward getting their teacher certification within three years. Henry said that the initial expectations for lateral entry were very high, that  “we’d be getting NASA engineers looking for career changes to teach science and math.” Instead, he said that this is rarely the case, that more frequently lateral entry teachers have majors such as business or psychology, and that they tend to come from the local communities. Lateral entry teachers performed worse than UNC-trained counterparts in two of the eleven categories.

While these and other findings are all important in their own right, it still might be best to focus on the dominant performance by Teach for America participants. The combination of their minimal training and their superlative achievement suggests one of two things: that the natural intellectual ability of the teacher is crucial or that the entire discipline of teacher education as it is conducted today must be questioned.  Or, most likely, it suggests that both of these things are true.

Overall, the study presents lots of very important and clear-cut evidence. Its findings should be intensively studied and its method should be duplicated nationwide. Let us hope, however, that political correctness and fear of offending the education establishment do not prevent policy makers from drawing the right conclusions instead of drawing the wrong conclusions from the right facts.