Looking for Teachers Qualified to Teach

The U.S. Department of Education announced on Tuesday a new set of rules designed to stimulate greater effectiveness in America’s teacher training programs. States will now be required to report to the federal government statistics such as job placement rates and student performance. Favorable student outcomes, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suggested, could also be tied to the amount of grant money distributed to teacher candidates.

Adding a layer of accountability to teacher training programs is a move long overdue. Educators across the ideological spectrum have for a few years now coalesced around a wealth of data showing that, second only to a child’s parental involvement, good teachers are the most important factor in producing good student performance outcomes. I cite the oft-reported statistic from Raj Chetty (which actually cannot be reported enough): a merely average teacher is worth $267,000 more to a child over his lifetime than an ineffective one.

Yet education schools are one of the most poorly performing sectors of higher education programming.

For instance, 62% of new teachers say they graduated from their teacher preparation program unprepared for “classroom realities.”  Of 13,000 teacher prep programs across the country, only 129 were rated by states as “at-risk” or “low-performing.”As former New York City chancellor Joel Klein wrote so deftly last month, “Far too many of these schools function as indiscriminate revenue sources for universities and colleges, accepting underqualified students and their tuition dollars for programs that are academically weak.”

The great, immediate, and necessary goal of the new rules is to refine the process of producing teachers who can teach.  But Klein’s comment about “underqualified students” alludes to the another, more subtle problem animating poorly performing education schools: the enrollment of many students who are not qualified to teach. The average SAT scores for teacher candidates lag far behind engineering majors, and even behind business and health profession majors. Teacher Prep majors are almost 50% more likely to graduate with honors-level grades than students in other academic majors, a data point that suggests heavy grade inflation.

The fact that the brightest students (Teach for America grads excepted) rarely head into teaching is partly a problem of what teachers can expect to earn. I suspect this is the culprit for the nation’s troubling lack of math and science teachers; people with math and science skills are more likely to land at Siemens, GE, and DuPont than Grover Cleveland Elementary. But having intellectually curious and capable students is also essential to student success. Multiple educators, most notably E.D. Hirsch, have argued for years that content-rich learning is the key to high student performance. Many students obtaining B.A.s and M.A.s in education are learning how to teach, but are not becoming masters in what to teach. Imagine a schlock waiter who knows his way around the restaurant, but can’t speak with authority about the menu.

A great deal of the problem can be laid at the feet of the education schools’ failure to emphasize content over technique. Additionally, the education B.A., which ostensibly prepares students to stand in front of a classroom, is very often larded with coursework that contributes little to the teacher’s in-class experience. The education major has experienced a great deal of bleed-through from sociology and anthropology curricula, and education professors are very often more concerned with addressing racial, class, and gender issues in public schooling than producing effective teachers. The enduring presence of books like Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities in education schools suggests that a goal many professors is to equip teachers to be not just educators, but activists. Consequently, time devoted to a teacher’s comprehension of pre-calculus, Shakespeare, or covalent bonds is lacking.

The reform of teacher training schools is not a panacea for all that plagues higher education. But it is critical to the long-term educational and economic health of the nation that America develop highly skilled teachers, especially in math and science (read Paul Peterson’s Endangering Prosperity on this point). As Plato said, the most important questions a society faces is this: who teaches the children, and what do they teach them?




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