With a new semester just getting underway, Paula Kelberman’s first order to her class of prospective elementary school teachers at East Stroudsberg University in Pennsylvania was to rearrange the tables in the classroom. They were lined up in rows. She wanted them in a “U” shape because rows are “boring” and too “traditional.” Rows also apparently promote individualism, which would-be teachers learn is bad, rather than cooperation, which encourages students to talk and work together. “This is not a course that will tax you in terms of reading,” the professor continued. “I’m not as interested in your grade as I am interested in your ability to explain your own process. The final product will not be as important as the effort, the process you put into it.”
These techniques – stressing how rather than what to teach – are common in the 1,300 colleges and universities responsible for training our future teachers. Educators have complained for decades about the failure of teacher ed programs to offer teachers any substantial training in subject matter. But despite a spate of reports and recommendations and flurries of activity in the name of teacher education reform, little has changed in the way most teacher training institutions go about their business. Most still attract students of average or below average intellectual ability. Most still make it easy for students to get into teacher education programs, often after they have failed coursework in another discipline. And most still view their role, and the primary role of the teachers they train, as change agents whose mission is to work toward social justice and equity in the classroom rather than academic achievement. The 1993 mission statement of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education explains: “First and foremost, quality teacher education [programs] must be places of active conscience. The professional commitment to social justice, and the ethics of equity and diversity in the American culture must be palpable.”
Social justice and equity are commendable goals for society, and no one could quarrel with the need for conscientious teachers who know how to create a harmonious classroom atmosphere. Moreover, some pedagogical training is clearly necessary, especially for teaching younger children (if you doubt it, try spending a day as a substitute third-grade teacher). But the foundation for learning is built in the elementary years and too often, the basics of teaching kids to read, write, and compute lose out to educational fads that focus on building self-esteem and discouraging competition.
For instance, in an effort to avoid competition and hierarchy, ed schools promote something called “cooperative learning” – putting students of varying abilities to work together on a project. Cooperative learning can be an excellent educational technique in some circumstances. But when used exclusively – as it often is – it enforces a lowest common denominator on the group and holds individuals back. Prospective teachers are subjected to large doses of cooperative learning as well, as professors model the desired teaching techniques. Other current teaching fads include “developmentally appropriate” learning, which posits that education is a natural unfolding that occurs at different times for different children and discourages teaching them to read and write before they are “ready.” E.D. Hirsch, the education critic and author of The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, testified before Congress that “this doctrine is drummed into almost all teachers who take early-education courses. The intention is to ensure caring treatment of young children, yet the ultimate effect of the doctrine is to cause social harm. To withold 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 pabulum, and it condemns disadvantaged children to a permanent educational handicap that grows worse over time.”
To make matters worse, today’s prospective teachers are often themselves the products of poor schooling and arrive on campus requiring remediation in math, writing, and sometimes reading. Consequently textbooks used in teachers colleges have been dumbed down to the point where a book used for a sophomore-level child psychology course, for example, “is written at what used to be a 10th or 11th grade high school reading level,” according to John E. Stone, an education professor at East Tennessee State University.
Small wonder then that 59 percent of newly-matriculated Massachusetts teachers, steeped in methodology designed to make students feel good about themselves but bereft of factual knowledge about any subject, failed a literacy exam given by the state last year. This was no isolated incident. The previous spring, Connetquot school district on Long Island in New York state got 758 applications in response to an advertisement to fill 35 teaching vacancies. 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.
Not too long ago it was expected that a child would learn to read by the end of first grade. In recent years, that expectation has been pushed back to the end of third grade – and many children still fail to learn because their teachers were never properly taught how to teach them. The prevailing “whole language” philosophy of reading instruction sees learning to read as a natural process that will come in time when the child is developmentally ready to learn to read. A good example of the chasm between education professors and parents (and even many teachers) is the language war over the best way to teach reading – phonics or whole language. Most schools of education continue to train prospective teachers in whole language even though research shows that early, systematic phonics instruction is necessary for 30 to 40 percent of beginning readers. It takes a brave teacher to buck the belief system and whip out flash cards when she sees children struggling to read because they have not been taught to sound out the letters of the alphabet. California, which saw its reading scores plummet after years of whole language instruction, has ordered schools to teach phonics, but there is massive resistance to this change.
Parents complain, too, that their children reach middle school and can’t multiply because teachers have been trained to emphasize “higher level thinking skills” rather the mundane memorization of the multiplication tables. Rote memorization is bad, teacher trainees are told. Learning any facts is useless, they hear, because information is constantly changing and increasing. It would be impossible to teach or absorb it all.
A 1997 Public Agenda survey documented a huge disparity between what parents want their children to be taught in school, and what professors of education want them to learn. Parents want orderly schools that emphasize the academic fundamentals. Education professors want less structured schooling that facilitates inquiry and stresses “learning how to learn.” Despite evidence that disadvantaged children especially benefit from traditional “direct instruction” (the teacher has information and transmits it to the pupil), Public Agenda found that even for this group education professors continued to preach process and learner-centered teaching in which children “construct their own knowledge.”
Raising the Bar
To become a public school teacher, college graduates have to be certified by the state. Prospective teachers must take required general education and education courses, do a stint at student teaching, and pass a series of general knowledge tests. The passing scores on these tests vary from state to state but tend to be low. As a result, a lot of unqualified teachers get into the classroom. In the early ’80s a few states weeded out the illiterates by testing veteran teachers, but howls from the teachers unions soon nipped that practice in the bud. For their part, unions complained that too many teachers were assigned to classes in subjects they had not trained in. A math teacher, for example, might be asked to take over a physics class because of a shortage of physics teachers.
Prodded by public officials, states like Pennsylvania are attempting to address the problem of teacher quality in a variety of ways, including forcing changes in the way the teacher training schools do business. Governor Tom Ridge and Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok have launched reform initiatives to upgrade teacher training. The first thing they’ve done is make it harder to get into state schools of education by increasing the required minimum grade point average to a 2.5 or higher, depending on the specialty. They’re also making it harder to get licensed as a teacher and are forcing schools to eliminate the watered-down content courses for teachers, replacing them with rigorous curricula that put the emphasis on subject mastery. There is considerable resentment among the deans and other high-level administrators, but privately some faculty members at the schools of education are cheering the efforts.
Pennsylvania’s East Stroudsburg University, for example, raised the grade point average needed to get into elementary education from 2.5 to 2.75. Students still need to take 60 hours in general education, but no longer have a smorgasbord of courses to choose from. A would-be secondary math teacher now must take the same math course a math major takes, not an easier course designed especially for teachers.
Hickok, who gave up his tenure at Dickinson College to continue working on education reform during the final four years of the Ridge administration, remains disappointed that teaching is “still attracting too many students who really aren’t of the intellectual calibre I’d like to see. On any college campus, the best and the brightest aren’t going into education,” he said. “That will take time.” Some deans of schools of education agree. Dean Edwin J. Delattre of Boston University School of Education – one of the harshest critics of teacher training – says there are no more than 50 good teacher training institutions among the 1,300 in the country. Of the others, he says: “They admit and graduate students who have low levels of intellectual accomplishment. They are well-intentioned, decent, nice people who by and large don’t know what they’re doing.”
Three years ago BU began to target only teacher applicants with high SAT scores. The inquiry pool immediately dropped 17 percent, but SAT scores of the freshman class topped 1200 that year – more than 300 points higher than the average self-declared education majors who took the 1996 SAT. BU also doubled the amount of time prospective teachers must spend in math class and made an ethics course mandatory.
Some schools, among them George Mason University’s Graduate School of Education, are tying teacher training to professional development schools – public schools that bridge the chasm between the theorists at universities and the practitioners dealing with real children in real classrooms. These schools work closely with teacher training institutions and allow prospective teachers to use their classrooms for extensive field experience. The program uses the school’s veteran teachers as mentors to the student teachers and also brings university professors out of their ivory tower and into a real classroom. New teachers say the extended practical experience is extremely beneficial. Dean Gary R. Galluzzo of George Mason is a strong advocate of professional development schools. He remembers going through teacher training and not seeing any students until his first day of student teaching. “I didn’t see a teenager until my first day in that school in 1973,” he said. “That’s wrong.”
Another way to improve the quality of teaching is through alternative certification programs. If properly designed and executed, such programs can open public classroom doors to people like Hickok, who has taught at the college level but is deemed unqualified to teach in a public K-12 school because he has not jumped through the hoops of ed-school methodology training. The nation’s first true alternative certification program was pioneered by New Jersey in the ’80s. The program, which attracted more minorities to teaching than the regular teacher college route, put college graduates with a bachelor’s degree into K-12 classrooms where they worked with a mentor teacher while taking an abbreviated teacher training program evenings and weekends. Pennsylvania is about to launch a similar initiative that will let bachelor’s degree holders teach under a mentor while taking one year of subject-based coursework to obtain a teaching certificate. The key is that the coursework will steep the teacher candidate in the subject he or she has been hired to teach, not just pedagogy.
This kind of alternative certification, which can bypass or at least lessen the impact of the faddish curricula of the teacher training institutions, could be a potent tool for forcing schools of education to become responsive to and provide the kind of no nonsense teachers that parents and the larger public want to see in K-12 classrooms.
School choice, which allows families to choose the public or private school they want their children to attend with state funding following the child, could also prod schools losing students to rethink their methodologies, putting pressure on the training institutions. In many districts, parents for years have signaled their desire for traditional or basic schools that put an emphasis on subject matter and are dedicated to achievement. The few public schools that feature structure and the basics find parents standing in line for days to try to get their child enrolled. Public charter schools can have the same kind of impact, particularly if their charters successfully free them from the regulatory red tape of hostile local school boards and teachers unions.
Another lever for change could come through the states, which accredit teacher training institutions and license teachers. If a school regularly graduates teachers who can’t pass the state’s certification test, states can shut that school down. States can also adopt value-added assessments to determine how well teachers are doing in the classroom. Pioneered in Tennessee, value-added assessment requires new teachers to demonstrate their ability to produce achievement in their students, not just pass performance-based exams that test their grasp of the current pedagogocal orthodoxy learned in teacher training schools. At a minimum, value-added assessment requires annual testing of students in all grades with a reliable and valid achievement test.
Unfortunately, teacher training reform appears to be headed in the wrong direction. The 1996 report of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future calls for all teacher training to be aligned with the teacher certification standards developed by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The National Board’s standards are consistent with the “latest research” that supports learner-center teaching and other fads already solidly in place in those institutions. The current push by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education to bring all teacher training under its auspices would similarly assure that social and attitudinal goals, not academic achievement, remain the priority of teachers. And that would add another nail to the coffin of teacher training reform.