January 13, 2008

Ed. Schools: They're awful (for the most part)

There's a must-read article up by George Leef titled "Teaching Teachers How Not to Teach." Much of what Leef writes I can personally attest to. Take the following, for instance:

Criticism of education schools doesn't just come from outsiders. Some highly knowledgeable and vocal critics are to be found among the ranks of current and former education school professors. One of those critics is George Cunningham, who taught for many years at the University of Louisville. In a new paper for the Pope Center, Professor Cunningham explains why he does not believe that schools of education in North Carolina are doing an adequate job of training future teachers.

As he sees it, the great problem is that most of the American public holds to one view of the role of schools, while most of the education school elite – the deans and the professors – hold a very different view. The public overwhelmingly believes that the function of schools should be mainly academic – that is, to make sure that children learn very well the skills and knowledge that it takes to succeed in life. If you accept that view, then schools succeed only if their students graduate with a high degree of literacy, with proficiency in mathematics, with a good working knowledge of science, history, our social institutions, and so forth.

It follows that teacher training programs should ensure that their students are expert in teaching those things to young people. Someone who intends to teach math, for example, should be both well-versed in the field and well-trained in the techniques of explaining math to their students.

On the other hand, the dominant view among those who run and teach in our education schools is that the key role of schooling is to achieve various social objectives. In their opinion, it's more important for teachers to properly adjust students' outlook on life and society than to instruct them in "mere" knowledge and facts. Under that view, teachers who devote too much time to "rote learning" (for example, learning multiplication tables) are not doing a good job and a school could be performing poorly even though all its students have mastered the "3 Rs." Cunningham writes that according to this theory, "a child's education is successful if he is exposed to the right attitudes by teachers, even if he does poorly in measures of learning on reading, math, history, science, and so on."

As an undergrad, I didn't major in an education field. I filled all my free electives with the necessary courses to become a certified teacher. Many of these courses were, in a word, brutal. I'll never forget 'em, 'cause honestly, I think root canal without novacaine would have been more enjoyable. One was titled "Historical Foundations of Education" in which we traced the "evolution" of public ed. throughout American history. Another was "Psychological Foundations of Education." You might think the subject matter here would be relevant since learning about kids' developmental stages is a good idea if you're gonna become a teacher. However, the professor was pushing about 80 years old and pretty much went off on irrelevant [left-leaning] tangents each and every class. The only useful class I took as an undergrad (actually, it was immediately after graduation) was a curriculum planning course. The prof was a stickler for the most minute detail; we'd have to resubmit lesson plans over and over again until everything was perfect -- even if there was a small typo where the word "the," for example, was spelled incorrectly. I think the main reason this course was so ... pertinent is because the professor was actually a history professor and not an education prof.

My graduate experience a decade later was actually worse. Thankfully, my program allowed for numerous "elective" courses. These preserved my sanity. The electives could be chosen from my field(s) of study/teaching. I took one on multiculturalism and its critics, one on Latin American revolutions, and one on using technology in the classroom. From among the "mandatory" courses, the classroom "management" and educational "diversity" courses were laughable. I wouldn't have said that as an undergrad, of course, because I had no experience teaching. However, from the start of my graduate program through its end, I had six to eleven years of experience in the classroom. This was more than sufficient to call out the utter nonsense espoused in these classes as just what Leef writes about. For example, these classes were dreadfully similar to the philosophy of Appalachian State's Reich School of Education:

"We believe that theory should guide practice in all aspects of our work. While we use a variety of theoretical perspectives in the preparation of educators, socio-cultural and constructivist perspectives … are central to guiding our teaching and learning. Our core conceptualization of learning and knowing – that learning is a function of the social and cultural contexts in which it occurs ( i.e., it is situated) and that knowledge is actively constructed – emerges from the intersection of these two perspectives."

Yep, those "theoretical perspectives" unfortunately get in the way too much of actual reality. Leef also writes that ed. schools do not teach about [the successful] "direct instruction" method; in my experience they actually did, but it was with barely disguised disdain. Cooperative learning was a hot -- and highly regarded -- method. Cooperation over competition was a prevalent theme. In my classroom instruction class, cooperative learning was clearly shown in a positive light, while direct instruction had its negatives emphasized.

Cooperative learning can be a good change of pace in the classroom -- an occasional "break" from the norm which allows more student interaction. One of the [ed. school] bases for cooperative learning is to have higher achievers act as "tutors" for the lower achievers. But I -- and many others, including parents -- have a problem with that: How is that fair to the high achievers? Why do the high achievers have to do the teacher's job? Another was that teachers should always make up (construct) the cooperative groups, always taking the usual "diversity" factors into account: race, gender, ability level. There's that "socio-cultural" perspective, I suppose. I know many teachers who use cooperative learning and it seems to work successfully. It's just a philosophical difference with me. I don't think students should "officially" act as teachers during class time. If they want to assist students after school in a school-sponsored tutoring program, great. Over the last dozen years or so, my classes' student body has been fairly homogeneous in terms of ability level. You're not going to get some students "teaching" others. Still, that hasn't prevented [some] parents from letting me know that they do not like "group work" since it tends to dilute an individual's effort. There are myriad ways to structure cooperative learning activities to maximize individual performance and accountability; however, ultimately at some level there is a group assessment that has to be measured. If there isn't, then it isn't a cooperative learning activity.

One of the instructors of my classroom management class (I say "instructors" because they weren't professors, or even classroom teachers -- I honestly don't know what they were) got her "digs" in on me on the back of one of my papers. In my paper, I gravely criticized our textbook and many of the readings as either naive or totally useless in real-life classrooms. The instructor called my feelings "visceral," and labeled me a "control freak" (mainly because I thought that a "conflict resolution" video we saw was ridiculous -- it placed the teacher and the student on the same "level" where a social worker, or some other staff member, would serve as a "mediator" in any dispute between a student and a teacher; in essence, the assumed "foundation" for the program was that the class/school wasn't the teacher's, it was a "democratic institution" where everybody -- especially the students -- contributed to the class rules, grading policies, etc.). Still, I got an "A" on the paper (it was meticulously researched!). But that was only a small fraction of the nonsense in that class. We played games -- yes, games -- that elementary school kids would play. This -- in a graduate level university course. We'd "brainstorm" main ideas from the previous night's reading. Some of my fellow students' answers were either just plain silly or purposely contrived to "match" the faux enthusiasm of the instructor. Questions like "What are some of the definitions that come to mind when you read that passage?" would elicit replies of "depressing," "ignorant," "distressing," etc. and this would go for about five minutes. The instructor would excitingly exclaim "Yes! What ELSE?!" One time I whispered to a teaching colleague of mine, "This is ridiculous -- watch this," and then I raised my hand and offered this [sarcastic] high quality adjective: "Bad." As predicted, the instructor said "GOOD!" Unbelievable.

The "multiculturalism/diversity in the classroom" (not the actual title) course, predictably, had the most loathsome content. There was no textbook, but every one of the readings was by a leftist. And by "leftist," I'm talking FAR-leftist. Howard Zinn was the author of an article that trashed Christopher Columbus and his subsequent Western legacy. In one of my papers on this reading, I pointed out that Bartólome de las Casas, whom Zinn quoted favorably in his article as standing up for Indian rights, was the main proponent of making use of Africans as slave labor to replace the Native Americans! The instructor's (she was a graduate student, not a professor) reply? "Interesting point." Numerous other readings dealt with the notion of "white privilege" (which detailed how minority students will never catch a "fair" break in schools unless whites "understand" their culture and/or there are more teachers that "look like them" in the classroom) and "liberation theology" in which a total restructuring of the educational system was advocated. Teaching students to be prepared to function in US society was insufficient and even "totalitarian" -- all it did was relegate them to becoming another cog in the "capitalist pie." The authors lamented that working class schools usually taught students to be prepared for the jobs they would most likely encounter in their reality. But at the same time, they argued, teaching them higher order knowledge and skills would give them "false hope." So, what should teachers do, then? The apparent answer was to yell "ˇViva la Revolución!" and fight to transform all of American (capitalist) society. Talk about your "key role of schooling is to achieve various social objectives," as Leef notes above, eh?

Elsewhere, Jay P. Greene and Catherine Shock note that "Students Lose When Diversity Is Main Focus," and their focus is schools of education:

To determine just how unbalanced teacher preparation is at ed schools, we counted the number of course titles and descriptions that contained the words "multiculturalism," "diversity," "inclusion" and variants thereof, and then compared those with the number that used variants of the word "math." We then computed a "multiculturalism-to-math ratio" — a rough indicator of the relative importance of social goals to academic skills in ed schools. A ratio of greater than 1 indicates a greater emphasis on multiculturalism; a ratio of less than 1 means that math courses predominate.

Our survey covered the nation's top 50 education programs as ranked by U.S. News and World Report, as well as programs at flagship state universities that weren't among the top 50 — a total of 71 education schools.

The average ed school, we found, has a multiculturalism-to-math ratio of 1.82, meaning that it offers 82% more courses featuring social goals than featuring math. At Harvard and Stanford, the ratio is about 2: Almost twice as many courses are social as mathematical.

Although a few commenters over at Joanne Jacobs' site take issue with this study, I think the overall point is clear: There's a definite disconnect -- as George Leef says -- between what the public wants teachers to focus on, and what ed. professors want.

In conclusion, and based on my own experience, ed. school reform is pretty easy:

  • Make "Mickey Mouse" ed. courses like "Historical Foundations of Education" electives, not required. They serve no practical purpose for budding teachers other than abstract knowledge.
  • Make the required courses focus on curriculum and lesson planning, assessment construction (a grad course on this was one of my useful classes) and classroom management. However, hire classroom teachers -- or at least former classroom teachers (with at least 15 years experience) -- to teach this course. Not social workers, not therapists, and not education professors who've done nothing but "observe" actual school classrooms.
  • Require more courses in [prospective] teachers' subject area.

And that should be sufficient. Pretty much everything else depends on a potential teacher's style, personality and disposition, not to mention what type of school the teacher may find him/herself. Any type of new teacher mentoring program is up to individual districts and/or schools.

I hope I didn't come off as some sort of omniscient, anointed sage in this post. I just wholeheartedly believe that a large dose of common sense needs to be injected into schools of education, and that that injection should flow into the new entrants of the teaching profession.

Posted by Hube at January 13, 2008 10:43 AM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

Actually, Hube, you told things exactly as they are.

The best piece of professional education advice I ever received during my teacher education program came from my student teaching supervisor, a WWII vet with over 30 years in the classroom -- "The first thing you need to do is forget all the crap they taught you in the Ed. School and start doing the things that your best teachers did in high school and college."

After all -- my history of ed professor gave us our tests before we covered the material and assigned a paper that was graded based upon the number of sources and footnotes (I recycled on from a history course on the civil rights movement, as it dealt with school desegregation). My philosophy of ed prof boldly stated in class that anyone who believed in school vouchers should be deemed unfit to teach. And my multi-culti ed prof ran us through every leftist film and reading on racism in America (including an old Bill Cosby piece from the 1960s) and only one from a conservative perspective -- featuring Phyllis Schlafley, who he lambasted before and after the showing it.

My personal position is that we need to abolish every teacher ed. program in the country and insist that every teacher have a regular degree in their content area -- and then spend their first two years in a mentoring program with experienced teachers.

Posted by: Rhymes With Right at January 13, 2008 02:55 PM

I will admit to being somewhat torn on this issue. Since I'm not going to allow my child to be subjected to it, the fact that other childern are subjected to this nonsense will improve my child's outcome later in life. Wolf among the sheep (so to speak) when it comes time to compete with people who are utterly unprepared for such situtions.

Posted by: John at January 13, 2008 04:20 PM

Hmm, I never thought about it that way, John. That's indeed an interesting point. However, keep in mind there are teachers out there (like myself and Rhymes With Right) in public ed. that are fighting to keep sanity prevalent in teacher ed. programs and the [public] schools.

Posted by: Hube at January 13, 2008 05:26 PM

There is only one aspect of this issue I think you are not covering: university accreditation. The universities with teacher education programs in Delaware (mainly DSU and UD) now undergo program accreditation through NCATE rather than the old way through DOE.

NCATE demands and enforces the theoretical biases you're talking about, and requires them to be included in (a) all course syllabi including those from outside the Education Dept as long as Ed majors take them; and (b) all collections of student work presented as evidence that you are really requiring students to learn and practice all this crap.

Ironically, one NCATE standard is "diversity" (our favorite watchword since "multiculturalism" bit the dust), but here's the rub: Universities are required to have diverse faculties, but those diverse professors are all required to teach exactly the same thing!! Yeah, that makes sense.

I'm NOT suggesting that there is not an abundance of radical theorists already existing among education departments and teacher training programs statewide or nationwide. Far from it. What I AM suggesting is that the reason you can't reform it is that if, say UD or DSU tried to do so, THEY WOULD LOSE THEIR ACCREDITATION.

The only way to fix this in Delaware is to have DOE drop its relationship with NCATE and go back to the old system of having the state's own education bureaucracy accredit the teacher education programs here. Bad as that might sound it has one major advantage on what exists now: the overwhelming majority of the folks who work at DOE have DE public school experience as teachers and/or administrators, and many of them plan to cycle back into the districts. They thus have more experience and more of a stake in the quality of our teacher education programs than the impassioned nutcase theorists at NCATE.

Posted by: steve Newton at January 13, 2008 10:59 PM

This is no surprise. On any campus, the ed school, both faculty and students, is the campus joke. I suppose it's just starting to leak beyond campus.

Posted by: rightwingprof at January 14, 2008 07:36 AM

The multiculturism vs. math comment reminded me of this.

Posted by: soccer dad at January 16, 2008 02:06 PM

One of the common themes at my blog is my profound dislike for my kids' public school -- and that's despite my freely acknowledging that it's one of the best public school systems in California and that the kids are indeed learning.

In one of my recent posts, I blogged on precisely the point you made in that first quotation, namely that school teachers think they have a mission that transcends mere reading, writing and 'rithmetic. I told the story of the school principal who was boasting about the enormous amount of time they were spending on "greening the kids," including such things as days spent on solar cookers, weighing garbage, and planting sunflowers to appreciate biofuel. I said, "You know, the single most useful thing you could do would be to remind the kids regularly to turn off the lights and close the fridge door." The principal acknowledged I was right and then confessed, with a winsome smile, "That the real purpose of these exercises is to educate the parents." I was so taken aback I didn't say anything at all. It was like getting hit by a bullet, and my synapses simply couldn't process the hit.

The other thing I've noticed is that most of the teachers at the school have no idea what they're talking about when they try answering questions about the education cant that shows up in the school's mission statement. I blogged about that too, here.

Posted by: Bookworm at January 16, 2008 06:35 PM

You know what my answer to you would've been, BW (on that mission statement thing, that is)? "It's a bunch of edu-babble nonsense, sir."

Seriously. Then I'd tell you'd need to consult our higher-ups as to its exact meaning, 'cause I'm too busy worried about actually teaching kids and not creating esoteric gobbledygook.

(Thankfully, my school's mission statement is in pretty plain language.) ;-)

Posted by: Hube at January 16, 2008 07:33 PM

Hey, Hube.

Abolish schools of Ed.? I couldn't agree with you more. I include grad. as well as undergrad. in the demolition.

While my grad. program was left of center, I was spared the nonsense by having the flexibility to create my own program, which was grounded in SLA and curriclum and instruction. Since I hold an undergrad. degree in my subject area, I wanted to focus more on the creation, delivery and evaluation of learning and teaching.

That being said, the preponderance of schools of Ed., including the elite ones, are real time and money wasters.

Thank you for your post.

Posted by: Miss Profe at January 18, 2008 07:03 PM

You're quite welcome, Miss Profe! Thanks for stopping by!! :-)

Posted by: Hube at January 18, 2008 09:19 PM

I agree with getting people "in the trenches" to teach higher ed course so imagine how thrilled I was when I was asked to teach a procedures course. I truly believe that some profs have gotten so far removed from the public ed classroom that they do not know what it is really like now. "Now" is what we need to be teaching future teachers.

Posted by: Pat at January 19, 2008 03:21 PM

As a college professor who's played this game I should add that while the left in academia (the vast majority) talk about inclusion equity etc., in fact they are the most dogmatic I've ever seen. Prospective teachers who have to undergo the indoctrination are often idealists who have a tough time resisting the mental pressure they face.

Posted by: Dr T at January 19, 2008 07:56 PM