All Commentary
Thursday, November 1, 2001

The Trouble with Teacher Training

Government-Prescribed Credentials Don't Create Good Teachers

This is an article about an absurd state of affairs in the field of education, but I’d like to begin with a little thought experiment having nothing directly to do with education.

Imagine two countries-Freedonia and Ruloveria-whose inhabitants like music. However, the two follow entirely different methods of training the musicians who play in their orchestras.

In Freedonia when an orchestra needs a new member, the conductor holds an audition to see which of the several musicians who have applied is the best performer. The ability to play the violin, oboe, trumpet, or whatever is the determining factor. The conductor is hardly interested in how or where the individual learned to play. He also is aware that if he chooses poorly, the quality of his concerts will suffer and he may earn less money or even lose his position. The Freedonian system is not written in law. In fact, it isn’t written at all; it’s just the way things have been done for generations.

In Ruloveria the government has stepped in to regulate the training of musicians. To combat the previous “anarchy” in musical training, laws were enacted many years ago to ensure that all would-be musicians would have “appropriate and professional” training. Any individual wishing to become a musician must attend a government-regulated training school, and conductors may not hire anyone for an orchestral position who has not earned his musician’s certificate, unless no certified musicians apply.

Students in the music schools devote most of their time to learning the theory of musicianship as it is conceived by the professors there. They take courses with such titles as, “Interpersonal Cooperation and Conflict in Ensembles” and “Oppression and Equity in Concert Programming.” The students seldom actually play any instrument; music professors in Ruloveria long ago stopped believing that it was important for musicians to learn how to play.

“A well-trained musician can learn the mere performance aspects later,” declared the influential Professor Lazarus Tinnatus. “We can see, even if the uninformed public cannot, that unless we have musicians who have been given the right outlook on the role of music in society, our social wounds will continue to fester.”

What would you expect to be the consequences of the two vastly different regimes for the training of musicians?

Concerts in Freedonia are usually well attended, and the patrons come away whistling tunes from favorite compositions. Although there is no official policy to guide the training of musicians, orchestras and other musical groups never have trouble finding talented performers. Music lovers are satisfied.

Concerts in Ruloveria, in contrast, no longer attract many willing customers because most of the musicians are incompetent. The government has taken to conscripting people to make up an audience.

No one is ever heard whistling after a concert, since the traditional pieces (such as the works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven) have been dropped in favor of avant-garde works. The ineptitude of the certified musicians is, for one thing, much less noticeable when playing such works as “Threnody for the Victims of the Glass Ceiling,” and the cantata “Give Me Diversity or Give Me Death.” But more important, such pieces don’t aim merely to entertain people (derision of mere entertainment having become firmly established in all the musician schools), but raise their social consciousness.

Occasionally one reads in the newspapers in Ruloveria about rogue music groups’ forming to play old-fashioned music and conductors’ hiring performers without proper credentials. There are laws against that of course, but the problem keeps recurring despite prosecutions against the misguided people who think they can take music into their own hands.

“Education Schools” and the Teaching Profession

Freedonia and Ruloveria are imaginary, but with regard to schools and the training of teachers, the United States used to be like the former and has now become like the latter. School principals used to be able to hire the applicant they thought likely to do the best job of teaching (and also fire him if they proved wrong). In our modern, credential-bound world, however, principals usually may hire only from the ranks of individuals with “teaching certificates.” One can only earn a teaching certificate by completing the course of study at an “approved” education school, and for the most part (although not completely), the education schools are dominated by education theorists who look at schools and teaching the way the leaders of my Ruloverian music schools looked at music.

If you wonder why American youngsters are so bad at reading and math, but are eager to tell you, for instance, that recycling is a moral imperative, the dominance of “progressive” theory in ed schools explains it. Professor E.D. Hirsch’s 1996 book The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them traced the source of our educational malaise to the influence of Teachers College at Columbia University, where “progressive” education ideas took root early in the twentieth century. Those trendy ideas, such as the notion that kids must be largely left free to “construct their own knowledge,” have been absorbed into the mental framework of the people who comprise the education profession. That “progressive” philosophy of education is so widespread that students who wish to become teachers almost invariably become saturated with it in the courses they must take in order to become certified to teach.

A recent report on the education schools in Colorado sheds a great deal of light on the content of teacher education. The Colorado Council of Higher Education commissioned education professor David Saxe of Penn State to study the ed schools there to determine whether they were meeting the standards set by the state for such institutions. Saxe’s report is a real eye-opener.

Colorado’s “flagship” university is the University of Colorado at Boulder. Saxe’s analysis of UC’s education program was devastating. The school is accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), which may sound nice, but in fact requires an institution to embrace the “progressive” faddishness that Professor Saxe and other believers in traditional pedagogy decry. He wrote that the program at UC was “systematically shaped by progressive theories of social justice” and that most of the courses were characterized by “excessive proselytizing” and “strident indoctrination of students.”

Proselytizing for what? NCATE is a bastion of educationists committed to the view that the main goal of schools is to right the wrongs of society (from a collectivist perspective) rather than to teach children fundamental skills and knowledge. Saxe quotes one prominent educationist who writes that “teaching and teacher education are fundamentally political activities and it is impossible to teach in ways that are not political and value-laden.” Schools should “help students understand and prepare to take action against social and institutional inequities that are embedded in our society.” Forget the 3 Rs; saturate the kids with collectivist ideology.

The syllabus for a beginning education course at UC states that “we will be examining general curriculum issues, questions about teacher professionalism, academic success and race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and power.” Syllabi for other courses make it plain that the professor is interested in turning out young “social justice” activists, not teachers competent in instructing youngsters in reading, mathematics, and so on. Trendy social critiques are showered on the students, most of whom are, many studies have shown, among the least intelligent of college students. (See Thomas Sowell, Inside American Education [New York: The Free Press 1992], p. 25.) That the indoctrination sticks fairly often is seen in the fact that so many teacher’s union members are activists on the political left.

Besides the Asocial justice slant, the education theorists also promote the idea that education must be “learner-centered” as opposed to “teacher-centered.” In “learner-centered” classrooms, teachers don’t do much teaching at all, since the theorists have concluded that it’s better for them to act as “facilitators” helping children to “construct their own knowledge.” That approach has come to be called constructivism, and it is the dominant view in most education schools. (There are, however, some exceptions.)

Constructivists believe that it is more “natural” for children to learn on their own with the teacher acting merely as a “guide on the side.”

The “learner-centered” theorists drum into their students that “teacher-centered” methods are antiquated and harmful. To use “drill and kill” methods will stifle the “natural enthusiasm” children have for learning and keep them from becoming “lifelong learners.”

With the role of the teacher changed to “learning facilitator,” it is evident why the ed schools see nothing wrong in sending forth graduates who have little or no learning themselves in areas they will teach. Teachers don’t have to be experts in math to teach math, experts in science to teach science, and so on. They need to know how to teach, not what to teach. Most education-school graduates with their beautiful teaching certificates in hand are like our music-school graduates who spent all their time in courses on dubious theories of musicianship rather than actually learning to play an instrument.

There is an abundance of evidence that “learner-centered” education is a failure from the perspective of parents who want to see their children making rapid progress through the educational basics and on to more advanced learning. On international tests of math and science, American students overall are well behind students from nations such as Japan, where they still use “old fashioned” methods (and where, as Professors James Stigler and James Hiebert observe in their book The Teaching Gap [1999], teaching is really a profession in that teachers are constantly refining their lesson plans and honing their skills). Of course, the average American score includes the scores of students who haven’t been dawdling in classrooms where they are “constructing their own knowledge.” If we compared children who have been “taught” by those facilitator-teachers with those who have been taught by teachers using the despised teacher-centered methods, the results would be even more striking.

The Test of the Market

The education establishment is trying to capitalize on the growing perception that we face an “education crisis” by lobbying for legislation that would “professionalize” teaching and “raise standards” by compelling all teachers to go through the portals of “accredited” education schools like the University of Colorado. But the “accreditation” they want simply means that the school will adhere to the “progressive” model of teacher training. It is, in other words, an attempt to use politics to corner the market on teacher training.

When put to the test of the market, the “progressive” education schools do not fare well. Where schools have a choice of hiring “certified” teachers with education degrees or individuals who have degrees in other fields, they tend to prefer the latter.

Schools that compete for students whose parents can readily place them elsewhere would rather have someone with a degree in mathematics than someone with an ed-school degree who would shrink in terror from a polynomial equation. A study by Professor Caroline M. Hoxby of Harvard found that among private-school administrators, teaching applicants who did not have ed-school credentials were preferred over applicants who did. (“Would School Choice Change the Teaching Profession?” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper W7866, August 2000.) At Choate Rosemary Hall, one of the most prestigious of the nation’s prep schools (among its graduates was John F. Kennedy), out of more than 100 faculty members, only three have state teaching certificates.

In an educational system based on freedom, decision-makers would take the same approach as the orchestra director in Freedonia and look for evidence of ability rather than ruling people out because they don’t have government-prescribed credentials. There would probably still be teacher-training schools, but they would have to compete among themselves, and graduates of those schools would compete with teachers who had no formal training. School principals would figure out how to find the best applicants. My guess is that education schools like the University of Colorado would turn out to be the Edsels in that market. Schools like that can survive only because government intervention guarantees a market for the students who earn degrees from them.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.