Yes, Mostly ‘A’s but That’s Not the Worst of It

American schools of education (“ed schools”) have often been spotlighted as the weak link between K-12 schooling and college preparedness. In his recent paper, “Grade Inflation for Education Majors and Low Standards for Teachers: When Everyone Makes the Grade,” University of Missouri economics professor Cory Koedel shows that ed school courses typically have very low grading standards. In many courses, A grades are heavily predominant; in some, every student gets an A.

“The data consistently show that education departments award exceptionally favorable grades to virtually all their students in all their classes,” Koedel writes. “Ultimately, a sizable fraction of the workforce in the education sector is trained in education departments where evaluation standards are astonishingly low. Should we be surprised that low standards persist in K-12 schools?”

Not that this is a new discovery. Koedel acknowledges that the problem of very high grades given to mostly average-to-weak students was identified more than 50 years ago.

Why do the ed schools operate this way? One reason, Koedel observes, is that unlike other professions such as engineering, where a college that gives all prospective engineers As would rapidly destroy its reputation. In the field of education, which is “notoriously ineffective at identifying high- and low-quality workers,” there is no penalty for easy grading.

Another reason, one Koedel doesn’t mention, is that easy grading is a case of practicing what you preach. One of the reigning ideas among education theorists is that students must have high self-esteem so they will want to keep learning. Giving a student a bad grade in an ed school course could damage his or her self-esteem, too.

As a partial solution, Koedel suggests that college administrators should step in and impose stringent grading standards on education departments. Even if that could be done over the inevitable protests, I doubt that it would matter. That is because much of what is taught in the ed schools is intellectual mush based on nothing more than feelings and tendentious theories.

Retired education professor George Cunningham made that point in a 2008 Pope Center paper. Instead of teaching future teachers how best to impart skills and knowledge to young people, he stated, much of the ed school curriculum is geared toward shaping the attitudes of the teachers in training so that they will in turn shape the attitudes of their students.

In that regard, it is noteworthy that one of the most commonly assigned books in ed school courses is Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute wrote, “This ed-school bestseller is a utopian political tract calling for the overthrow of capitalist hegemony and the creation of classless societies.” The Pope Center’s Jay Schalin also excoriated Freire’s book.

It’s pointless to insist on rigorous grading of courses that revolve around the inculcation of socio-political belief systems. Giving every student an A (for regurgitation of whatever the professor wants to hear) is not the problem. The course itself is the problem.

Not all ed school courses are overtly political, of course, but many of those that aren’t ideologically slanted possess little academic rigor. Consider these examples of intellectually weak ed school material excerpted from a recent report on schools in Illinois by the National Council on Teacher Quality:

*A classroom management course in an undergraduate elementaryeducation program that requires “personal reflections” in 21 assignments.The reflections address such questions as, “What classroom management program most closely reflects your own philosophy?” and “Do you feel that establishing a positive classroom atmosphere at the beginning of the school year is important?” or ask the candidate to comment on class lectures or activities. This course does not include any assignment that requires candidates to develop, for example, a classroom management plan for specific students or circumstances based on strategies discussed in lectures or assigned reading.

*A child development course in an undergraduate elementary program in which 25 percent of the grade is based on a “lot in life” paper. For this assignment each student is randomly assigned a condition (e.g., your child was born blind) and is then asked to write a first-person narrative to describe the condition. The connection between, in this case, being the parent of a blind child and teaching elementary school is not made. In fact, the course objectives and its assignments (like so many others we found) never make any explicit reference to the classroom or the implications for instruction of any material addressed.

*A mathematics methods course taught at a well-respected Illinois institution with high admission standards in which 60 percent of the grade is based on what appeared to be essentially a crafts project. The instructor provided us with an example of one of the projects that he considered exemplary: a children’s story with crayon drawings, nearly devoid of any mathematics content.

In short, the high grades given to almost all ed school students are just one of the symptoms of a much deeper problem—a curriculum that is barren or even harmful.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Hillsdale College has a teacher preparation program that requires students to take a substantive academic major besides the teacher training courses, which focus on practical classroom matters the students will encounter.

Japan, one of the countries that regularly outpaces the U.S. in international comparisons of student knowledge, doesn’t have education schools at all. There, students must first earn an undergraduate degree in an academic field and then those who wish to enter teaching apply to become apprentices. Only a small fraction of them are accepted. The apprentice works with a master teacher for several years. They don’t waste time on pedagogical fads and sociological theories, but instead work on improving how lessons are taught.

James Stigler and James Hiebert discussed the Japanese system in their book The Teaching Gap. “The premise behind lesson study is simple: If you want to improve teaching, the most effective place to do so is in the context of a classroom lesson. If you start with lessons, the problem of how to apply research findings in the classroom disappears. The improvements are devised within the classroom in the first place,” they write.

No mushy ed school curriculum with high grades for the Japanese!

America’s system for training teachers needs dramatic change, far deeper than making A grades less plentiful.