Reforming Dysfunctional Teacher Education: ‘Back to the Future?’

Most American children are trapped in public elementary and secondary schools that are either mediocre or dysfunctional.

Readers who wonder if this statement is polemical should know that for almost two decades, the federal government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the nation’s highly respected school assessment tool, has documented that on average, less than 40 percent of rising 4th graders score “proficient” or higher in reading. In the latest 2019 NAEP assessments, 35 percent of children entering 4th grade attained a proficient reading score or higher. In no state did even 50 percent of rising 4th graders score proficient or higher.

This abject failure is worse than it appears because there is virtually no reading improvement in later grades. In 2019, only 37 percent of high school seniors nationally scored proficient or higher in reading, and NAEP tests for high school seniors don’t account for high school dropouts who, if they remained in school, would have lowered the average.

Now, a COVID-19 year of online learning in many public schools promises to make early literacy failures a long-term educational disaster.

A key takeaway from the reading example is that most college and university education colleges share substantial responsibility for the literacy problem. National Center for Educational Statistics data indicates that 90 percent of public school teachers obtained state certification through mandated education college courses.

Also, uncertified teachers currently in classrooms have temporary licenses until they finish mandated education college courses. A majority of current and aspiring public school teachers and at least a plurality of private school educators’ jobs depend upon state certification. To get that, they’ll have to take those literacy courses in education departments or colleges that leave them unprepared to teach reading.

In 1997 the U.S. Congress, concerned about the controversies of the “Reading Wars,” authorized the creation of a national reading panel of school administrators, practicing teachers, and cognitive scientists specializing in reading research. After reviewing over 100,000 reading studies, the National Reading Panel released its report in 2000, recommending effective literacy strategies including teaching phonics, systematically building vocabulary, and requirements that readers summarize material to demonstrate understanding.

Unfortunately, that report had little impact.

Too many education faculty members are unaware of it. Others believe that demonstrably effective literacy instruction stifles children’s creativity, imagination, and potential love of reading. They continue to promulgate theories like Balanced Literacy that sound good but don’t work in most classrooms.

Balanced Literacy’s predecessor, Whole Language (now thoroughly discredited), was based upon the premise that, especially with young children, learning to read comes naturally, just as with talking. Education departments embraced Balanced Literacy, supposedly a compromise between the National Reading Panel’s findings and the romantic nonsense of Whole Language proponents that children naturally learn to read.

Too often, education professors teaching Balanced Literacy minimize or ignore the importance of phonics, spelling, grammar, and systematic vocabulary acquisition and teach their students that too much basic skills transmission, essential for literacy, inhibits children’s creativity.

Abysmal early literacy is not the only result of the failed theories most education professors embrace with almost religious fervor.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, philosopher John Dewey and his followers developed “progressive education,” advocating that children’s experiences, problem-solving, and education for democracy should supplant systematic study of academic subjects, especially in elementary school. Dewey’s most famous popularizer, William Heard Kilpatrick of Columbia University’s Teachers College, wrote a 1918 article called “The Project Method” that was a clarion call for aspiring teachers to de-emphasize academic content and give highest priority to “student-centered instruction.“

Student-centered instruction’s premise is that children can collaboratively teach each other if an adult is the “guide on the side.” There’s virtually no evidence to support this assertion, but decades after Kilpatrick, the pedagogical dogma is unchanged: Adult-led systematic instruction in academic disciplines is declared harmful, especially to young children who should be acquiring critical thinking and collaborative skills through discovery learning. How to learn, rather than what to learn, is critical.

That nascent educational movement also received strength from three roughly concurrent developments in U.S. history. An unprecedented wave of immigration to America’s cities left educators grasping for ways to educate culturally different students. Educators seeking new methods were attracted to progressive education. Colleges and universities also created social sciences departments, (including education departments) with faculty who promulgated scientific-sounding theories, mostly based upon what Friedrich Hayek called “scientism”—slavish imitation of the method of science—and lacking the rigorous peer review common in the natural sciences.

In the post-World War II years, graduate programs churned out increasing numbers of Education EdDs and PhDs, most of them wedded to failed theories. School quality declined.

Improvement of teacher education should begin with learning about the teacher education institutions that progressives destroyed.

“Normal Schools” were the first American teacher education institutions. The first normal school opened in 1839, and by 1850, normal schools were a national institution. They shared four critical advantages in contrast to contemporary university education departments: unity of common purpose, deep commitment to liberal education for democracy, practical school-based education, and a commitment to moral and civic education.

Abysmal early literacy is not the only result of the failed theories most education professors embrace with almost religious fervor.

Normal school faculty were deeply committed to liberal education. William C. Bagley, the most prominent normal school educator in the country and a strong critic of progressive education, promoted the systematized study of traditional academic subjects. Bagley also advocated practical school-based teacher education: large numbers of normal schools developed demonstration schools, especially at the elementary level, ensuring that aspiring teachers would have regular interactions with children and with master teachers.

Normal school faculty encouraged what came to be labeled “the normal school spirit.” Teaching was a calling and moral and civic education were imperative.

Alexander McMurry was a prolific normal school speaker and thought leader who developed a widely used civic education curriculum using history, literature, and effective lesson plans incorporating learning facts, digesting knowledge, and absorption and reflection.

Note these excerpts from his curriculum for students below the high school level: Edmund Burke’s “Conciliation with the American Colonies,” Washington’s Farewell Address, Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” Nathanial Hawthorne’s Grandfathers Chair, and the Gettysburg Address.

Although there were variations, in normal schools, individual ethics and civic education alone constituted common moral education for aspiring teachers. In most contemporary education schools, one would be hard-pressed to find any such emphasis.

Normal schools were first replaced by Teachers Colleges beginning in the early part of the 20th century. Teachers Colleges expanded the functions of normal schools but still included a unity of purpose for students preparing for careers in education. Unfortunately, those institutions were quickly expanded into state universities that diluted or destroyed many of the elements that made them effective.

Much can be learned from the normal schools and teachers’ colleges.

The promising news is that examples exist of demonstrably effective college and university teacher education programs: Gordon College, Lipscomb University, Mount St. Joseph University, and Walsh University.

These institutions differ from typical teacher education programs because of effective reading instruction, and in several cases the provision of prescriptive and coherent liberal education curricula, as well as ethics and citizenship education, and practical school-based opportunities aspiring teachers receive. For readers particularly interested in improving early literacy, Mississippi—the state that made the most progress in the 2020 NAEP early literacy assessments—requires all its teacher education programs to use demonstrably effective early literacy methods.

Nationally, a growing network of education professors exists who reject student-centered progressive theories and utilize the four normal school principles in their work. Every like-minded education professor I know finds a way to introduce aspiring and practicing teachers to E.D. Hirsch Jr. and the Core Knowledge Foundation. It may come as no surprise that Hirsch is a leading advocate of science-based early literacy, as well.

Dramatic improvement of teacher education at all levels is important. I am a proponent of encouraging educational choice alternatives. One important strategy is to create alternative certification for teachers that would increase their chances of either bypassing schools of education that continue to promulgate failed educational theories or increase the incentives for effective education programs in colleges.

State policymakers should also eliminate the linkage between national accreditation standards that state departments of education, state school boards, or universities require aspiring teachers to meet for certification. The authors of these standards advocate the same progressive theories that helped make schools ineffectual.

Teacher education is vitally important and new teachers should have coherent liberal educations, a love of learning, an aspiration to be experts in the subjects they teach, use effective evidence-based instruction, and emphasize civic and moral education.

Teaching indeed should be viewed as a calling at all levels. American public schools will continue to fail to achieve the most basic tasks, especially teaching children to read, until major changes in teacher education occur.

Lucien Ellington is UC Foundation Professor of Education at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.