Why Teachers Colleges Get a Flunking Grade-
By Barbara Nemko And Harold Kwalwasser
Let's give up on education majors. Too much theory, not enough practical learning about teaching.
Education gurus in recent years have taken to lamenting the sorry state of teacher training in the United States. Arthur Levine, the former president of the Teachers College at Columbia University, wrote a scathing report in 2006 on its deficiencies. Harvard Graduate School of Education Prof. Katherine Merseth made an even glummer assessment in 2009. Four months ago, the National Council on Teacher Quality released a report asserting that approximately 1,100 of the nation’s 1,400 teacher-preparation programs are inadequate. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has dismissed the programs as the “Bermuda Triangle” of higher education.
How can new teachers be expected to educate children without first having been trained well? The problem, put simply, is that entrance requirements to most colleges of education are too lax, and the requirements for graduation are too low.
Most colleges and universities have no incentive to change: The education schools are cash cows, milked for the benefit of the rest of the institution and rarely held accountable for being subpar. Education curricula are almost uniformly out of date and far too theoretical, with minimal classroom-teaching requirements. Too often, these future educators learn to “teach” math, but they don’t necessarily learn how to do the math itself.
The problem dates to the 19th or early 20th century, when these schools first opened. Teachers at that time, most of them women or minorities, weren’t expected to have great skills. Education professors assumed their students could only teach if given a script to read every day. But after the civil-rights and feminist movements, these once underestimated individuals had other opportunities, leaving the weak curriculum consistent with the collective quality of students. By 2010, the mean critical-reading SAT score of entering college freshmen was 501, but for education majors it was 481. The math score was 516 compared with 486, and in writing, 492 versus 477.
Teachers, however, have always bridled at low expectations, wanting to be thought of as professionals. The American Federation of Teachers even calls itself “the union of professionals.” So colleges of education treat training as “professional” rather than “vocational.” Essential and practical teaching skills, like classroom management, took a back seat to endless discussions of theories about how we learn—which won’t seem very relevant to a struggling first-year teacher.
These problems existed well before the drive for individual instruction and the introduction of learning through the Internet. Today school districts are learning to navigate instructing students in compliance with Common Core standards. Districts are trying combinations of old-style lecturing, project-based learning, embedded technology and co-teaching. With such different techniques in each school district, new teachers must either relearn or unlearn what they supposedly paid to learn in college.
Instead of trying to improve undergraduate teacher training—as experts have proposed for decades—we have another idea: Get rid of it. Or at least end teacher education as we know it.
Two simple but radical changes could transform teaching in America. First, require aspiring teachers to major in something other than education. Students who want to be math teachers must major in math, for example, and fulfill the same graduation requirements as the school’s other math majors. Same for English and science. That alone would improve the quality of teachers enormously.
Next, take state funding for colleges of education and give it to school districts instead. The districts would take on the obligation of teacher training, either doing it themselves or contracting with an outside organization or university. Many districts already train this way with what’s called “alternative certification,” and research suggests that these programs can be more effective than traditional, college-based programs.
The Tennessee Higher Education Commission found in a 2012 study that several alternative-certification programs were among the state’s most effective teacher-training programs. Their success affirms that the technical teaching skills learned while in the classroom are generally far more important than all the theory learned in college.
Many good school districts have robust professional development programs for their already-hired teachers. Requiring them to supervise or provide training for new teachers is simply an add-on to a program, not a new invention. In general, empowering school districts to provide teacher training will make them much more demanding than colleges of education—because districts have to live with the results.