No Wonder Johnny (Still) Can’t Read

There are many reasons for the lamentable state of education in the United States today, but perhaps none is greater than our schools of education.

My experience at California State University, Los Angeles in the 1980s was typical. The courses were easy. Rigor was non-existent. I took eleven courses for credit, receiving ten As and one B and never once feeling intellectually challenged. There was typically an easy mid-term and a final and a paper (which was supposed to show that I knew how to deliver a lesson).

Sometimes the courses were like being back in grade school. I had a lot of fun in my methods classes, especially in Physical Education, where we played games all period.

The required course work included ten weeks each of classes in music and art, but science and social science were combined into one five-week class. A basic course in classroom management, something that would have been a great benefit to future teachers, was non-existent.

Rather than focusing on the best techniques for teaching students the skills and concepts they need, professors drummed into us that we should not “drill and kill,” nor be the “sage on the stage,” but instead be the “guide on the side” who “facilitates student discovery.” The children’s feelings were to be engaged first and foremost. Legions of students who have had teachers who were trained in these progressive techniques can barely add or read, but they probably have extremely high self-esteem.

By the time I got to the classroom, I felt less prepared to teach than the day I began Cal State.

“Whole language” was the regnant theory of the day. It drops the traditional, successful, phonics method of teaching reading and replaces it with a “holistic” approach in which students are taught to use “critical thinking strategies” to guess the meaning of words they don’t recognize. It was a disaster for student reading ability, but is still prominent in education schools today. (Whole language advocates have taken to calling it by other names, such as “balanced literacy.”)

Then, in the 1990s, the fad of multiculturalism took hold and it has grown to epidemic proportions. Teachers-to-be were forced to learn about this ethnic group, that impoverished group, this sexually anomalous group, that under-represented group, etc.—all under the rubric of “Culturally Responsive Education” (CRE).

CRE means “understanding that one’s way of thinking, behaving, and being is influenced by race, ethnicity, social class, and language.” Prospective teachers are required to examine their own “sociocultural identities” and the inequalities in schools and society that support “institutionalized discrimination,” which preserves a “privileged society based on social class and skin color.”

Those ideas, incidentally, are not presented as theories, but as facts that are not open to question. Education schools are thus indoctrinating their students in a tendentious idea that encourages them to see all social problems as stemming from “discrimination” and “privilege.” 

Instead of devoting their time to learning how to teach students fractions or paragraphing, teacher candidates are supposed to inspect and confront any negative attitudes they might have toward cultural groups. This boils down to saying that the dominant culture needs to understand that it has been oppressing everyone else and must make amends.

Among the offshoots of CRE is anti-racist math which has now been embraced in a number of school districts. In Newton, Massachusetts, for example, the top objective for the district’s math teachers is to teach “respect for human differences.” Students should “live out the system-wide core value of ‘respect for human differences’ by demonstrating anti-racist/anti-bias behaviors.” The problem is that you can do all of that to perfection and not learn a smidgeon of mathematics.

In 2008, education reform professor Jay Greene showed how bad the multiculturalism problem had become. Writing in City Journal, he and a research assistant explored the number of multicultural classes offered in our teachers’ colleges. They counted the number of course titles and descriptions that

 “…contained the words ‘multiculturalism,’ ‘diversity,’ ‘inclusion,’ and variants thereof, and then compared those with the number that used variants of the word “math.” We then computed a ‘multiculturalism-to-math ratio’—a rough indicator of the relative importance of social goals to academic skills in ed schools.”

The results were telling.

“The average ed school, we found, has a multiculturalism-to-math ratio of 1.82, meaning that it offers 82 percent more courses featuring social goals than featuring math. At Harvard and Stanford, the ratio is about 2: almost twice as many courses are social as mathematical. At the University of Minnesota, the ratio is higher than 12. And at UCLA, a whopping 47 course titles and descriptions contain the word ‘multiculturalism’ or ‘diversity,’ while only three contain the word ‘math,’ giving it a ratio of almost 16.”

In my state, California, thirty percent of students entering the formerly vaunted University of California system now need remedial help. For the Cal State schools, which include most of the state’s schools of education, sixty percent of the students need remediation and for the city and community colleges a whopping 90 percent need remediation.

This means that we are not educating children properly in our K-12 systems. The lack of rigor and misplaced focus in education schools bear much of the responsibility.

Can our education schools be turned around?

Arizona State University, with the largest undergraduate teacher prep program in the country, has just this year unveiled a “radical” new program, in which students must demonstrate mastery of specific teaching skills as measured by a popular teaching framework. ASU is using the Teacher Advancement Program, a model run by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

After examining the description of this new approach to teacher education, I must say that it looks solid. Rather than using the standard “touchy-feely” methods, the program employs objective measures to evaluate teachers. It remains to be seen whether the entrenched “progressive” forces will kill off or subvert the Teacher Advancement Program, but it is a challenge to the status quo.

Most of our education schools have been getting away with malpractice that would not be tolerated in any other profession. Unless we start doing something radically different than we have been doing, we will continue to turn out teachers who miseducate the children of America.