How to Change the Ed Schools

Education schools have come under sustained attack for what is perceived as their failures to adequately prepare America’s future teachers. I am an education school faculty member and it might surprise you to learn that I think the critics make some interesting and important points.

Nearly twenty years ago I was enrolled in Northern Illinois University’s elementary education program in preparation for becoming a fourth grade teacher. I was an education convert from the political science department, one of those naïve college students who wanted to change the world (without really knowing what, if anything, was wrong with it).

My biggest question was not whether I wanted to change the world, but how. Should I do it through politics; or should I go into teaching and become a builder of a new social order? I chose teaching.

What I remember most about that conversion was the incredulity coming from my fellow poli-sci students. Many couldn’t believe that someone who could choose from a variety of careers in the political arena or law would go into teaching instead.

That incredulity followed me all the way through graduate school. While I was still taking courses in philosophy and political science, many of my professors warned me that education students do not generally fare well in their classes. It was no secret that they regarded education students as inferior and willing to endure education courses that better students would find unpalatable.

The truth of the matter is that many talented students are dissuaded from becoming teachers (but of course many talented ones do teach, too).

I am now a professor and department director of a small, Catholic-affiliated teacher education program at Mount Marty College. We lose some talented students every year because of concerns about the job market, low occupational prestige, and coursework that’s perceived as boring or not rigorous enough. I have paid attention to the criticism of education schools and find some of it worth noting, especially that pertaining to student quality and the curriculum.

In December of 2010, the latest (and for America, disappointing) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results were announced. A portion of the report said that teacher preparation programs need to focus on recruiting and retaining top-tier students. Teachers certainly should be highly intelligent, but trends over the past several years indicate many education students come from the lowest third of the ACT/SAT distribution. They are well-intentioned young people, but have rather low aptitude.

Some education school professors relish trying to bring up these lower performing college students because they ostensibly were victims of a debilitating system and because the professors view education as a way to save and reconstruct society. That “Mother of Exiles” mindset must go. Education schools should strive to enroll better students who will be devoted to instructing young Americans, not to shape weak students into ideological “change agents.”

Another line of criticism focuses on the teacher education curriculum, which the sharp critic Sol Stern (author of the iconoclastic Breaking Free) refers to as “a form of intellectual torture.” Along with Stern, J. Martin Rochester (author of an equally iconoclastic book, Class Warfare)  maintains that the standard education school curriculum is a litany of progressive fads that ill-serve the students they were intended to help. Just to name a few, we’ve had New Math, Everyday Math, Ethnomathematics, phonics, whole-language, ebonics, mainstreaming, inclusion, assertive discipline, routine-based management, backwards design, multicultural education, multiple national curricula, and multiple intelligences.

Rochester comments that educationists’ obsession with “mass excellence” leads to trendy curricular decisions that have little or no effect on learning. While educational fads have paved the roads to many lovely academic careers, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data painfully suggests that our schools are not much better now than over 30 years ago.

I agree with the critics. Fads have distracted us from focusing on a rich history of identifiable teaching methods that actually work, that actually lead toward student and school achievement.

Dissolving the ed schools and starting a new system, however, isn’t an option. We have to take the criticisms seriously and be creative and entrepreneurial with the infrastructure we have. What should we do?

The first requirement is to attract better students. Joel Klein, past chancellor of the New York City school system quotes a McKinsey and Company report to this point. Klein quotes the report as saying that “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” And though I believe that teachers are made more so than born, I do agree that colleges need to start recruiting and retaining students from the top-third rather than the bottom third of high school students going to college.

An aging but still apropos report by Bruce Fuller supports this belief. In a review and analysis of literature, Fuller found that a teacher’s verbal ability positively affects student achievement, more so than training, experience, and salary. Unfortunately, as just discussed, many teacher education students rank in the lower third of college students on SAT/ACT performance. Arguably, education students don’t have strong verbal ability coming in, and I don’t believe that their work in preparation programs (as they’re currently configured) improves it.

But it isn’t inevitable that education schools should only attract weaker students. Teaching is a great career path for many who don’t realize it. Good teachers are bright and creative. They love challenges and desire to share ideas with others. Every job has its constraints, but teaching is  one of the few careers where the individual can creatively design and implement what he or she does on a daily basis. The profession must begin marketing itself to these students.

Next, once bright and talented students are recruited into teacher education, the curriculum is key to retaining them.

Bright students complain about the feeble and at times un-intellectual coursework. Some of that consists of pedantic methods courses that seemingly have little or no connection to the “real world” of teaching. I commiserate with such students, but believe that some of the methods courses are essential. They could be made better, however, if the professors would show, through available research and demonstration, that there is a connection between student success and the observable behaviors of effective teachers.

There is no way around methods, but it would help if professors stopped approaching their students in these courses as if they were young grade-schoolers—requiring them to imitate elementary students for instance.

Foundations courses can be some of the most interesting and academically appealing courses on a campus. The philosophy, history, and sociology of education are intriguing areas of inquiry. Where they oftentimes go wrong is when the content is created around activism instead of disciplinary-related inquiry and scholarship.

In my experience, foundations courses are sites for teaching radicalized ideas about class struggle, multiculturalism, social reconstruction, radical democracy, critical pedagogy, race theory, etc. Disciplinary integrity gets lost in the mix when activists use their classes for  bullying students into “correct” thinking.

In the above sense, Ed school students rightly complain about ideologically-laden courses focusing more on what to think rather than how to think. That especially turns off students who have a good background in math or science and are thinking of teaching those subjects in high school. They are repulsed by the infatuation with diversity, multiculturalism, race theory and other trendy achievement-gap explaining ideas commonly countenanced in education schools. As a result, the country loses out on good math and science teachers every year who would rather take their chances in graduate school.

I don’t think we will get the best and the brightest until deans weed out politically slanted courses and focus on scholarship and what works rather than activism. That won’t be easy or pleasant for deans because that status quo has been quite comfortable for some. But it’s essential.

In sum, education schools must recruit better students by emphasizing the intellectual challenge and creativity inherent in teaching, and, focus on shoring up curricula.

I would like to end with a question to those students who, as undergraduates, considered teaching but instead chose a different career path: Could the changes I have suggested encouraged you to choose teaching? What, if anything, could have encouraged you to teach?