A Credible Critique of Teacher Education

The great majority of the teachers in America’s public schools were trained for their work in one of our education schools. Students who want to go into K-12 teaching usually major in education, just as our future engineers major in engineering and future chemists major in chemistry. There is, however, a difference: no widespread criticism has ever been aimed at our engineering or chemistry programs calling them “follies” or saying that their graduates are mostly ill-prepared.

For decades, people have been making such criticisms of education schools.

Back in 1991, Rita Kramer’s book Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers argued that our ed schools were giving the country a steady stream of intellectually weak teachers who had been steeped in dubious educational theories but knew very little about the subject matter they were to teach. Despite widespread and strenuous criticism such as Kramer’s, education schools have changed very little since then.

Now, a study by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has once again focused attention on the weakness in most of our education schools. That study gathered data from over 1,100 institutions (although some had to be hauled into court after refusing to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests) and was able to gather enough on 608 schools to give them a rating based on 18 standards the NCTQ team established.

Those ratings have been published by U.S. News & World Report and provide the most thorough consumer’s guide to ed schools now available. For the first time, students and school principals have a means of sorting wheat from chaff in teacher preparation programs.

The conclusion is that there is not much wheat and a whole lot of chaff. Only four schools earned the top evaluation (four stars). Those schools are: Furman University in South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Lipscomb in Tennessee, and Ohio State. A small percentage of programs earned good ratings with three or three and a half stars, including one program at UNC-Chapel Hill. More than three-fourths of the programs evaluated, however, were found to be mediocre or weak.

NCTQ’s evaluations were based on 18 different standards grouped into four “buckets”: selection of students, content preparation for the material the student plans to teach, professional skills in the classroom, and outcomes (i.e., how well the school does in assessing the competence of its graduates). I will just highlight a few of the standards. 

Perhaps the most important is Standard 1, relating to student selectivity. In  educationally successful countries such as Finland and Japan, education students have to be in the top third or better of their classes before they will be considered for acceptance into the teacher training program;  in many American programs, almost any student who wants in will be accepted.

Consequently, our teachers (at least those who go through ed schools) tend to be academically weak. Many colleges and universities prefer a large quantity of students over high quality and lots of education majors choose it because ed school is easy to get into and easy to get through. Even if the study did nothing else, it would be beneficial because it focuses attention on the low selectivity that prevails among our ed schools.

Another crucial standard addresses reading instruction. Many young Americans struggle with reading because they are not effectively taught how to read in their early school years. The trouble here, NCTQ president Kate Walsh explains in this article, is not so much that education schools train teachers in a bad reading method as that they don’t train them in any method: “What these programs most often teach is not to adopt the whole language approach, but that the candidate should develop her own approach to reading, based on exposure to various philosophies….”

That statement gets at one of the great failings of most of our ed schools. Instead of actually training future teachers, they see their mission as preparing them to learn to teach by imbuing them with the right attitudes and beliefs. While future teachers in other countries (Japan being a good example) work with veteran teachers to master lesson plans on how best to impart knowledge to their students, our future teachers spend much of their time listening to vague or pointless theorizing from professors—many of whom have little teaching experience themselves.

One of those theories, for example, is that teachers need to take into account their students’ “learning styles.” Most ed schools propound that superficially appealing notion, but, the study says, it has been “thoroughly discredited by research as ineffectual.”

Finally, student teaching experience ought to be an extremely important part of ed school training, but the NCTQ study finds that in only 7 percent of the programs evaluated are students “ensured of receiving strong support from program staff and cooperating teachers.” In 23 percent, students receive “some support” and in 70 percent, they are not ensured any support from staff and teachers. Moreover, most programs have no “exit strategy” for those who do poorly in their student teaching.

While I think that the report is valuable in catalyzing a badly needed discussion about the way we train teachers (or not), all of its data and figures don’t give the reader much of an idea about what’s really the problem with ed schools. It provides a “30,000 foot” view that needs to be augmented with a ground-level view.

One paper that looked at ed schools at ground level is “Facing the Classroom Challenge” by Lance Izumi and Gwynne Coburn. Among the people the authors interviewed was Nancy Ichinaga, principal of an inner-city Los Angeles school. She explained that whenever possible, she tried to hire teachers who had “emergency credentials,” which is to say, people who knew their subject but had “no teacher training.”

Elaborating on that point, she continued, “Teachers who have gone through the credential programs at the colleges come with baggage. They think they know better because they’ve been brainwashed and those are the teachers with whom we have trouble.”

Ms. Ichinaga, from years of experience, knows that her students badly need structure, discipline, and a “teacher-centered” classroom. The problem is that most education schools tell their students that the “best practice” is to have “student-centered” classrooms. That is because students will supposedly be more engaged when they are “constructing their own knowledge.” Although that notion appeals to “progressive” theorists, Ms. Ichinaga knows that it’s disastrous for students in her school.

(For another “warts and all” portrait of education schools, Heather Mac Donald’s “Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Teach” is superlative.)

Early this year, the Pope Center hosted a forum featuring a range of speakers who agreed that education school was a very impractical way of equipping future teachers with the skills and knowledge they need. That conclusion is strongly reinforced by a recent Washington Post article by Jane Dimyan-Ehrenfeld, who formerly taught “breathtakingly underprivileged” elementary students.

She wanted to become better at teaching her pupils, and enrolled in Teachers College at Columbia University, one of the most famous of all education schools, in the belief that the program would help her. Instead, she found it an utter waste of time. “My professors seemed uninterested in teaching me anything practical,” she writes.

Everything revolved around the educational theories of Lev Vygotsky and she dutifully wrote every paper from a Vygotskian perspective—but realized that none of this theory was relevant to her challenges. “I finished my program with no more practical teaching knowledge than I had when I started,” she concludes.

It’s not hard to see why school principals like Nancy Ichinaga regard ed school credentials not as a plus, but as a minus.

The concept behind NCTQ’s project is that it will spark competition. Once students and school decision-makers can say which ed schools are good and which ones aren’t, that will put pressure on the poor ones to improve. In time, it might, but first the gigantic, anti-competitive obstacle of teacher licensing requirements must be eliminated.

Most public school officials are required to hire teachers who have licenses, and those licenses cannot be obtained without going through an ed school program. That means a captive market for the ed schools—even the worst of their graduates won’t have to compete against sharper, more motivated people who know their subject and desire to teach, but haven’t done their time in an ed school. That is why the North Carolina legislature’s tentative agreement to limit the required number of certified teachers in the state’s charter schools is an important step. (See p. 2 of the agreement.)

Don’t get me wrong. The NCTQ study is very beneficial. It focuses attention on a serious problem America faces in the training of teachers. But to solve that problem, the vital reform is to allow a free market in that training.