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Thursday, July 18, 2013 08:23 am

Manufacturing mediocrity

A report critical of area teacher prep doesn’t go far enough

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In July the National Council on Teacher Quality, a D.C.-based reform group, issued a study that concluded that the nation’s teacher-education colleges have turned into an “industry of mediocrity.”

Oh, the Council thought well enough of most the central Illinois’ colleges of education, specifically those at Eastern, U of I’s Champaign campus, Southern’s two campuses and Quincy University. The programs at UIS and ISU, however, would get kicked off the volleyball team if they were students. UIS earned just two of four possible stars for its elementary teacher prep and 1.5 of four for its training of secondary teachers.

The equivalent programs at ISU – which has been training teachers since 1857 and so ought to have learned how to do it right by now – were given 1.5 and one star out of four, respectively. (A young ISU ed grad, now in her third year of teaching, told the SJ-R said that her training did not adequately equip her to modify lessons so slower students could master them at their own pace – pretty basic stuff.) This is a matter of some local import, since some 20 percent of the area’s teachers graduated from ISU.

Improve the ed colleges, it would appear, and you improve the performance of a lot of young teachers. Maybe. Up to a point. A teacher’s degrees or certificates or even years of experience are only marginally correlated with student performance as measured by test scores. You might have heard about the Teach for America project, which puts eager beavers of unconventional backgrounds with no teaching degrees into difficult classrooms after a crash five-week course in teaching techniques. TFA teachers have turned out to be no worse or very slightly better at teaching reading and math than their traditionally trained peers. A “C” for the FTA project, perhaps, but an “F” for conventional teaching training.

Letter-writers and commenters no doubt will remind me that most teachers are caring, hard-working people who do their best. I already know that. I also know that some of them are brilliant teachers, and many more want to be. And I know that the brilliant ones are brilliant for reasons that have little to do with their formal education in education.

The fact that ability and ambition can emerge from four years in an education college is heartening; it’s like integrity surviving a term in Congress, where everything and everyone discourages it. The problem is that there is too little ability and ambition in those colleges in the first place. Look at Finland, whose schoolkids top most of the world achievement charts. Teachers in that nation are respected professionals who are treated and paid like professionals – and are expected to meet professional standards. Only about 15 percent of applicants to Finnish training programs are admitted, and while only 23 percent of American teachers are drawn from the top third of each class of college graduates, 100 percent of Finnish teachers are from the top third.

In this country, alas, probably only business management makes fewer intellectual demands on undergraduate degree-seekers than does education. Graduate schools of education hand out advanced degrees like gold stars on homework, awarding nearly 30 percent of all master’s degrees, more than any other branch of graduate studies. But they place too much emphasis on technique and classroom management and too little on children – their brain development and their social needs, among many other things. The advances that are likely to revolutionize pedagogy are not coming from our ed colleges but from “big data” innovators and brain science.

Nonetheless, ed colleges and/or their graduates have a stranglehold on accreditation and curriculum and the senior education department bureaucracy. Compliance with the No Child Left Behind act, for instance, requires that all core academic classes be taught by “highly qualified” teachers, meaning those who, in addition to holding at least a bachelor’s degree, are fully certified by state education bureaucrats (who tend to have degrees from ed colleges) and have demonstrated subject-matter competency (according to standards developed by the same).

The Council’s criticism thus strikes me as a bit like the Vatican damning dissident nuns as poor Catholics because they question churchly homophobia and misogyny. (One of the Council’s key evaluative criteria was the amount of training students get in the techniques of bullying and bribery known as classroom management.) More fidelity to the doctrines of mainstream pedagogues won’t fix schools if mainstream pedagogy is a big part of the problem.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at krojr@comcast.net.
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