Free at Last

“I felt I was breathing new air.”

“This is the best news since the invention of the wheel!”

“A thousand blessings upon you all!”

“Wow! This is happening in Amerika?”

Those are a few of the 337 comments on Daniel Coupland’s article “A College Reinvents Teacher Education” posted on our site. Coupland’s article, published by the Pope Center on July 26, 2012, explained how Hillsdale abandoned certification and decided, instead, to create the best possible program for its education students.

The purpose of my essay is to share some of the comments that followed Coupland’s article—and express why I believe that Hillsdale’s experience might mark a turning point.

In the past, Hillsdale, a small college in Michigan known for refusing to accept federal funds, met the state of Michigan’s education-certificate requirements so that its graduates could teach in Michigan schools. Thus, government requirements framed the program. That was bad enough, but then things got worse. The state ended its own program and said that future teachers in its public schools would have meet the costly, time-consuming,  and largely meaningless requirements of a professional organization, NCATE  (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education) or TEAC (Teacher Education Accreditation Council). That was the last straw for Hillsdale.

The school could not meet national  standards, which, in Coupland’s words, “lacked both value and credibility,” and still teach its students well. As a result, Hillsdale graduates won’t be able to teach in Michigan public schools unless they take additional steps.

But Hillsdale students will learn how to teach, and the college is likely to be a leader in providing graduates for private and charter schools.

As Coupland writes:

… we realized that many of our existing courses had been developed only to meet the state’s onerous standards, which had tightly controlled what was taught in teacher education courses. With those requirements no longer binding, we were free to keep what was useful, eliminate that which was not, and create new courses to address whatever was being overlooked.

That’s the “new air” applauded above.

In addition to many plaudits for Hillsdale, the comments to Coupland’s article reveal the sad condition of teacher education, past and present.

A retired teacher from Texas wrote,

Many years ago, I prepared to teach by taking the required courses to become a business education teacher in Texas. I am 75 years old now, but I am still bitter about the time I had to waste on mandated classes that did me absolutely no good. I needed to know so much and got so little.

Another wrote:

I have two education degrees—both are worthless. The education courses I was forced to take were a waste of time and money. When I graduated, I did not know how to teach!  Congratulations to Hillsdale for seeing a problem and designing a solution.

And another:

My mom is an elementary school teacher, and for years she has been saying how worthless methods classes are, what a joke the typical “philosophy of education” course is, and that new teachers themselves are lacking basic academic skills such as good grammar.

In the past, however, at least there were some meaningful standards. Teachers knew grammar—and taught it. The Hillsdale program will have a course in grammar, as well as a revamped course in phonics instruction.

One commenter reacted to the grammar class:

I find it heartening that you emphasize the importance of our teachers being well educated and competent in grammar! Oh, the countless times I’ve heard teachers talk about something and include a phrase such as ‘we don’t do that no more.’ Or, ‘we ain’t supposed to do that, neither.’ How are our students going to learn when their ‘certified’ teachers talk this way?


Last week, my niece, 12, was playing a game of Hangman. When I told her to pick a vowel as her next letter, she said, ‘What’s a vowel?’

Hillsdale’s program will expect students to major in a specific field, not education, and it will also require core classes in liberal arts.

Some commenters worried, however, about the transformation:

Can’t Hillsdale College find a way to marry its educational philosophy with the expectations of teacher education students set forth by the Michigan Department of Education? I fully believe that parts of Hillsdale College’s philosophy are very important and beneficial to the development of new teachers. However, it can be hard enough to find a job in teaching, especially if one wants to remain in Michigan, so why would the college present a program that limits the employability of its graduates?

A commenter familiar with the program responded that students can work with a nearby institution, Spring Arbor University, and obtain the necessary courses for certification. Alternatively, after they graduate, they can take master’s degrees in teaching.

Even under today’s system, graduation from an NCATE-accredited college does not guarantee that one reaches a classroom. One commenter said:

I’ve jumped through hoops to seek certification in a different state than that where I received my degree. They sent me back to an in-state school for a semester to take the classes needed to check off all of the little boxes on their checklist. I took a math class that was at about a sixth-grade level. My school hadn’t required that because of my extensive work in calculus. I retook a social studies methods class because my catalog didn’t contain the word “economics” in the class description.

There’s much more! I heartily encourage the reader to skim through the remarks.

So what’s the result of this change at a small Midwestern college? At first blush, nothing. Efforts have been made for years to stop wasting time on pedagogical theories and to return to nuts-and-bolts education such as phonics, direct instruction, and traditional math. In addition, the leadership of education schools tends to be drenched in “social justice” theories that focus on the social environment of children, not on teaching them.

But we may, at last, be seeing signs of change. Hillsdale has not only rejected NCATE standards but has come up with a blueprint for better ones. Other colleges could champion this as well.  With its frankness, Hillsdale is saying what many others must think about certification—the emperor has no clothes.

And others are beginning to say it, too. A new report from the American Enterprise Institute contends that there has been a “profound transformation” in attitudes about teacher quality; “we have come to view teacher quality as independent of licensure and individually measurable,” writes Arnold F. Shober. This new approach opens the door to reform.

Studies at the University of North Carolina have also revealed the weaknesses of the present system. A six-week course taught by Teach for America, a private organization, can turn bright students who know their subject matter into teachers who are more effective than graduates of four-year UNC education schools.

And the National Council on Teaching Quality has joined with U.S. News and World Report to rank education schools. This is already controversial—and resisted by some education schools. Undoubtedly, the results will be imperfect, but they will create pressure for education schools to improve.

Finally, state legislatures face the fiscal realities of a sluggish economy. As  the Obama administration gives waiver after waiver from the No Child Left Behind standards, there is at last a chance that those legislatures will tire of pouring money into failing education systems. They may start to look at one of the causes of the problem—how teachers are being taught, and not taught.

Perhaps we can detect a fresh breeze blowing.