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Teacher Education Blamed for Public Schools' Decline

by Carol Innerst

aybe little Janie can’t read or count because her teacher can’t teach. Or worse still, maybe the teacher doesn’t know enough about English or math or history to teach the subject.

Mischievous speculation? No. It happens, as a result of an historically flawed system in America of educating mostly average or below-average students to be public school teachers.

As evidence continues to pile up that American children are not learning the basics in school, critics are quick to blame the youngsters, their parents, the schools, television or the curriculum.

But increasingly, the focus has shifted to the teacher, the most vital link in the education process. Now, a four-month study at teachers colleges by The Washington Times indicates that the problem of unsatisfactory classroom learning is rooted in the early selection and education of students who say they want to be teachers. These students then are being taught by professors who differ wildly on what teachers need to know.

"Schools of education are cash cows to universities," says Dean Edwin J. Delattre of the Boston University School of Education. "They admit and graduate students who have low levels of intellectual accomplishment, and these people are in turn visited on schoolchildren. They are well-intentioned, decent, nice people who by and large don’t know what they’re doing."

Mr. Delattre is one of the harshest critics of schools of education.

"It would be possible in terms of the quality of their research, the significance of their research and the quality of their instruction to give an intellectual justification for perhaps three dozen of them—certainly no more than 50," he says.

There are about 1,300 schools nationwide teaching students to be teachers. Roughly 2.5 million public-school teachers are responsible today for the education of 46 million children in kindergarten through high school. Although many teachers perform well, a significant number are products of an entrenched training system that almost guarantees mediocrity in the classroom.

New initiatives are under way in some of the preparatory schools and colleges, but, for the most part, the old ways and faddish new ways are still shaping the teachers of tomorrow.

To become a public-school teacher, graduates have to be certified by the state. A college student must take required courses, do a stint at student teaching, and pass a series of general-knowledge examinations. The passing scores for these tests vary from state to state but tend to be fairly low. Curiously, many aspiring teachers never get in front of a classroom until their final days in college—an experience that persuades many to seek other careers.

A major in education has long been considered an easy route to a college degree. Elementary education majors were especially easy to spot on any campus. They were the ones cutting out letters of the alphabet to make posters while the English majors worried over a paper on Shakespeare’s treatment of religious themes.

Rigorous academic training was seldom demanded. "You just had to love lads to become a teacher," says J. Michael Davis, dean of the School of Professional Studies at 105-year-old East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.

Thirteen years ago, it was possible to graduate from East Stroudsburg with a major in elementary education without ever taking a math class, Mr. Davis recalls. Twenty years ago, some University of Maryland campuses gave short shrift to reading instruction.

Serious concerns about teacher training surfaced in 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk, a landmark national report on the state of America’s educational system. It found that too many teachers had poor academic records and low scores on tests of cognitive ability. Students who went into teaching programs scored below nearly all other majors on college entrance exams, then graduated not knowing enough about the subjects they were teaching.

Not much has changed in 15 years.

Anyone who believes that the problem of unqualified teachers is overblown or confined to a couple of subject areas such as math and science has only to look at the experience of a New York state school district last spring, when it tried to fill 35 teaching vacancies.

The Connetquot district on Long Island got 758 applications in response to an advertisement. District officials decided to narrow the pool by asking applicants to take a short version of a multiple-choice reading comprehension test taken from the state’s old 11th-grade Regents English exams. Just 202 applicants correctly answered at least 40 of the 50 questions.

Such incidents keep teacher education in the public consciousness and on the radar screens of elected officials at the state and federal levels. Initially, state legislators turned to higher salaries to try to attract higher-caliber students. From 1981 to 1997, average salaries for public school teachers rose from $17,209 to $38,611. That’s for what is essentially a 180-day school year plus in-service days spread over nine months. Then, lawmakers linked salary increases to policies aimed at raising standards such as requiring new teachers to have more education and raising the passing scores prospective teachers must attain on standardized tests such as the National Teacher Examinations and its successor, Praxis.

The teachers colleges responded with talk of "restructuring" teacher education, and some institutions actually did move to raise admissions and curriculum standards. East Stroudsburg has raised entry standards and toughened course requirements.

Students still need to take 60 hours in general education, but they no longer have a smorgasbord of courses to choose from. The college recently raised the grade point average needed to get into elementary education from 2.5 to 2.75.

In 1996, Boston University began to target only teacher applicants with high SAT scores, resulting in a 17 percent drop in the inquiry pool. As a result, prospective teachers in last fall’s freshman class had average SAT scores of 1,276, compared with 964 for all 85,442 self-declared education majors who took the 1997 SAT.

George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. decided in 1989 that teachers should get a bachelor’s degree first and then train to teach in a fifth-year graduate-level program. The Northern Virginia school says it annually rejects half the applicants for elementary education training because they don’t meet admissions standards.

It takes a 2.7 GPA to get into the University of Maryland College of Education at College Park and a 3.0 to prepare for special education, a five-year program.

"We’re not getting the best and the brightest kids," says University of Maryland Dean Willis D. Hawley. "We’re getting some of the best and brightest. Some kids are really smart. What there aren’t anymore are kids who are really dumb."

But the perception lingers, even among insiders, that a lack of academic rigor continues to plague the nation’s teacher training programs.

"The truth is, students get into colleges of education— particularly early-childhood education majors—because it’s the easiest thing they can get into," says John E. Stone, professor of education at East Tennessee State University and founder of the Education Consumers Clearinghouse– an Internet source for parents, taxpayers and policy-makers.

"Here at ETSU, the schools of education are kind of at the bottom of the pecking order," he says. "Students flunk out of nursing or business and come to Ed to get some kind of college degree."

Since the concept of a formalized vocational training program for teachers was established nearly 160 years ago, that training has combined lessons in subject matter with courses in methodology, or "how to teach."

The training also has included theories of child development and practical field experience. From the start, teaching preparation emphasized methods of teaching at the expense of the content of courses. Often the subject matter would be watered down and presented in courses tailored especially for teachers, instead of requiring teachers to take the same math, for example, that liberal arts majors were required to take.

"Their focus is process, and that hasn’t changed," says C. Emily Feistritzer, who as president of the private Washington-based National Center for Education Information has conducted a number of studies of teachers and teaching. "Resistance to change is extraordinarily high at the same time there is a high level of conversation about change."

Many critics of teacher training programs argue that a solid grounding in the liberal arts with a concentration in the subject to be taught is all that is needed to teach math, science, history or English. But Mr. Hawley at Maryland’s College of Education disputes that. Chances are, he argues, that a rocket scientist would make a terrible science teacher.

"You have to have the ability to transfer knowledge," he says.

That ability generally has to be learned, says Dean Gary R. Galluzzo of George Mason’s Graduate School of Education. He believes that only five percent of the population might be "born" teachers, while 65 percent have knowledge but need to learn how to impart it. Boston University recently doubled the amount of time its prospective teachers are required to spend in math class.

It also requires juniors and seniors in education to take an ethics course that exposes them to the icons of Western civilization.

"We try to make the fact that teachers are deeply involved in character and values formation obvious to our students," says professor Kevin Ryan, who teaches an introductory education course. " ‘What is the right thing to do?’ is a question teachers need to ask the young. And we want them to see that America has a moral heritage."

Adds Charles L. Glenn, chairman of BU’s Department of Administration, Training and Policy Studies, who teaches a course on the social and civic contexts of education:

"Teachers have to be moral exemplars to students. We raise questions that are usually raised in a religious context. On what basis can you say certain behaviors are right or wrong? I don’t know how you can send someone who hasn’t grappled with those questions out to teach a seven-year-old."

Schools of education, reacting to social and political pressures, are perceived to be more interested in promoting equity, diversity and social justice than in transmitting knowledge. And many of the educational practices they encourage are often criticized as fads.

East Stroudsburg’s administrators, for example, proudly describe their teacher training program as focused on the learner and on "outcomes," committed to "developmentally appropriate practice," "modeling," inclusion, and "hands-on" and cooperative learning.

These are the buzzwords and the practices that permeate nearly all of the nation’s teacher training institutions.

"Schools of education are currently the origins of our problems, not their solution," says E.D. Hirsch Jr., professor of English and university professor of education and humanities at the University of Virginia.

Testifying before Congress, Mr. Hirsch sharply criticized what’s known as "developmentally appropriate practice" — the philosophy that a child should not be pressured to learn anything until he signals that he is ready and receptive.

"The doctrine," he said, "is drummed into almost all teachers who take early-education courses. The intention is to ensure caring treatment for young children, yet the ultimate effect of the doctrine is to cause social harm. To withhold demanding content from young children between preschool and third grade has an effect which is quite different from the one intended. It leaves advantaged children —who get knowledge at home— with boring pablum, and it condemns disadvantaged children to a permanent educational handicap that grows worse over time."

The schools that hire new teachers appreciate the increased attention college and university training programs are giving to practical experience.

"Teaching colleges are getting a lot better," says James Dallas, a Fairfax County support coach for new teachers. "They have begun to structure their programs to the needs of the school systems."

Where practical experience used to come in the senior year, it now begins at many places in the freshman year, where it can serve to weed out those who discover that life in an elementary classroom is not what they thought it would be. While there is general agreement among the deans about the value of practical experience, they part company on the ideal program to train elementary teachers.

Mr. Galluzzo of George Mason would opt for a solid general education foundation in an undergraduate or graduate program.

"You should be required to take a liberal arts major of about 80 semester hours—or two-thirds of the college experience for general education plus major combined. Then you should study the four core disciplines—math, science, history and English—roughly 15 credits each. Spend the other 20 hours getting smart in one of these areas. And in the undergraduate program, the other 40 credits are in learning to teach those things, because now you have something to say."

In many programs, a lot of the basic discipline has to be taught in the methodology classes because the prospective teachers don’t know enough math or science to stand up in front of a class and teach, he says.

One of his concerns is that too many future teachers take a concentration in psychology instead of English, math, science or history, thinking it will help them understand children. In fact, psychology is a subject they will never teach in elementary school.

"What does it mean to know your subject?" asks Maryland’s Mr. Hawley, whose background is in the liberal arts and political science. "You probably don’t need to understand quadratic equations to teach fourth-grade math, but you ought to understand algebra and calculus." u

Carol Innerst writes on education issues for The Washington Times. This article was reprinted with permission.

Meanwhile in Nevada…
"Unfortunately, little of what I learned in
my school of education prepared me for the classroom."

—Sparks second-grade teacher

"Why don’t we just back-charge the high
schools for the crappy job they’ve done?"

—State Senator Jack Regan,
at Education Committee Hearing

"Colleges are the ones that should be charged for the rotten teachers they’re producing."

—Former Superintendent of
Schools Eugene Paslov in
response to Senator Regan

"If teachers within the higher education community are not prepared to teach to higher academic standards, then they should not be hired."

—Senator Bill Raggio, Chairman,
Legislative Committee on Education

"My head is spinning from all the workshops I’ve been attending to improve our test scores. In all my years of teaching, I’ve never felt so much pressure to perform."

—Washoe County elementary
school principal


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