All Commentary
Wednesday, January 1, 1997

The Problem of Education Doesn’t End at the 12th Grade

K-12 Students Are Being Shortchanged by Their Teachers' Educations

Lawrence W. Reed, economist and author, is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market research and educational organization headquartered in Midland, Michigan.

The sad story of poor student performance in America’s public schools is so widely known these days that most people greet each new study that confirms it with a kind of numbed disgust.

That was the case in my state of Michigan last September when the results of proficiency tests in math, reading, writing, and science were reported in the press. Barely one-third of high school seniors were rated proficient in science and writing and fewer than half achieved that basic level in math and reading. So what else is new? seemed to be the common response.

The decline in students’ test scores and of literacy in America are often laid at the doorstep of K-12 public education. Children are clearly being shortchanged, but not by the K-12 system alone. Indirectly but decisively, children are being shortchanged by the system that teaches the teachers who teach the children—higher education.

Last September, the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future released an important study. The bottom line: Large numbers of public-school teachers are not qualified to teach the subjects to which they are assigned. Close inspection suggests that the problem is not that too few teachers are graduating with good grades and degrees in education; the problem is what goes on in the courses they take from university departments of education.

Poor student performance and poor teacher preparation are directly related. In a recent study for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Professor Thomas Bertonneau argued that general undergraduate instruction in the state universities is deficient and deteriorating. Far too many graduates lack basic verbal and cognitive abilities, and the reasons are disturbing: the disintegration of an effective core curriculum; the pervasiveness of trendy, politically correct courses that stress indoctrination over genuine learning; the dumbing down of instruction in proper writing and reasoning skills; and a growing gap between what students are taught and what they must know to succeed as teachers or other professionals.

Analyst David P. Doyle describes teacher education in these terms: It is a classic example of a ‘closed’ system, one in which there is little or no feedback from the outside world. Once through the process, teachers heave a sigh of relief and get on with their work. Teacher educators, institutionally insulated, have been under little pressure to change or improve. Worse yet, their inertia is reinforced by state teacher licensing requirements that mirror the vapid courses they offer.

Let’s examine a few of the dubious exercises our universities are engaged in.

Most college graduates over the age of 40 will recall taking freshman English composition. That’s the course in which they learned the fundamentals of written exposition, including a review of grammar and syntax, and some lessons in informal logic and the rules of evidence. A tedious but valuable course, freshman composition once sharpened universally applicable skills that helped us deal meaningfully with material and assignments in other courses.

But in universities today, much of what passes for freshman composition is trivial and irrelevant, or worse. Heather MacDonald writes in The Public Interest, The only thing composition teachers are not talking and writing about these days is how to teach students to compose clear, logical prose.

Course syllabi and related materials from English departments and writing programs in universities across the country reveal a general lowering—and in some cases, an abandonment—of standards of correct writing. Self-expression and moral liberation (the anything goes approach) are often emphasized over prose competency. Typical is this professor’s advice from a freshman composition course syllabus at Eastern Michigan University: Don’t worry about writing perfect papers. I do not have a set standard for what I consider ‘good writing.’

Professor Bertonneau conducted a survey of the master syllabi for freshman composition at Michigan’s universities. His work revealed the dominance of a school of thought that denigrates the very notion of basic skills. According to this view, there is no connection between a knowledge of grammar, syntax, and logic on the one hand, and the communication competency of students on the other. Emphasizing basic skills is characterized as elitist, or as an exercise in discrimination against ethnic minorities, or as a manifestation of an oppressive economic system.

A study from the Empire Foundation last summer showed that the same philosophy pervades the state universities of New York. Indeed, this is a cancer that afflicts higher education—and hence, teacher training—all across America.

The abandonment of rules and standards in the universities shows up in other ways too—in a popular but dubious focus on peer teaching, for example. This is an activity in which students who have not yet gained competency in prose are supposed to substitute for the teacher and teach each other what none of them by himself knows, namely, the elements of clear and correct communication.

Dr. Peter T. Koper, one of Professor Bertonneau’s colleagues at Central Michigan University, dissents from this prevailing orthodoxy. He sees the trends cited here as inherently divisive. In Koper’s view, Grammar is not elitist. It is, rather, quintessentially democratizing, the ability to use Standard Written English being the condition for participating in public life in this country and in much of the rest of the world.

A preference for trivia is also part of the problem in today’s teacher education courses. The curricula offered by university education departments are heavy on fuzzy self-awareness, multicultural, and other faddish or politicized material, and light on the hard knowledge of the subjects that teachers will eventually have to teach. One assignment, offered as a model to teaching assistants at a major university, asked students to watch and discuss TV talk shows like Oprah and Montel for two weeks of a 15-week semester.

Rigorous content in the traditional liberal arts has disintegrated in favor of cultivating emotions and politically correct opinions. The result is a huge disservice to prospective teachers who pay good money to become prepared for the classroom but are instead diverted into shallow, unproductive, and even irrelevant course work. If that were the end of it, it would be tragedy enough. But millions of taxpayers who help pay the bill and millions of children who suffer at the hands of poorly prepared teachers are casualties too.

This cake was baked with ingredients that could hardly have produced any other outcome: a tax-funded, politicized education system leavened with institutionalized protection for incompetence and annual financial rewards for mediocrity.

Education reformers have scored points everywhere by painting K-12 public education as an unresponsive government institution in need of competition, accountability, even privatization. If they take a look at universities, they will find much the same thing.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is