When does a crisis become the status quo? It’s been 57 years since the landmark study “Why Johnny Can’t Read” sounded a clarion call to correct the failures of our poor public education system. Yet we still seem to be sliding backwards, despite frequent attempts at reform.
The percentage of adult Americans who have “below basic” reading skills, as defined by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, has been hanging steady at about 14 percent—in some cities the rate approaches 30 percent. The U.S. has been falling toward the middle of the pack in international studies of educational gains, and more and more professors claim that their students show up on campus less prepared to handle college-level work every year.
Fingers point in every direction to assign blame, yet little substantive change occurs and reform efforts tend employ only narrow “inside-the-box” thinking. So on January 15, the Pope Center did away with the “box” and let the pedagogical fur fly with a conference entitled “How Can We Get Better Teachers?” aimed at sorting out the various culprits and solutions for K-12 education’s weak performance.
Roughly 30 educators, experts, and critics listened to presentations by ten speakers at the event, who offered opinions that ranged from the radical—doing away with education schools altogether—to the ordinary, such as providing existing teachers with more continuing training and mentoring.
The impetus for the gathering was a decision by Hillsdale College in Michigan to radically alter the way it trains young people for the teaching profession—including an end to its participation in the state teacher certification process. According to one of the school’s education professors, doing so permitted Hillsdale to consider “what teacher education could be without the ideological straightjacket” imposed by the state.
While the speakers’ viewpoints were too varied to reach any sort of real consensus, some common themes emerged. One is that teacher quality is the central issue in improving K-12: all the other “claptrap,” said Hillsdale history professor and former charter school principal Terrence Moore, is secondary. “No matter how bad the curriculum is,” he said, “good teachers will find a way to teach.”
But exactly how to improve teacher quality is no easy question, with many potential approaches. Certainly, eliminating or revamping licensure and certification processes and boards was a favorite strategy at the event. Poor teacher quality, Moore suggested, is largely the result of “the monopoly of teacher certification,” which requires that “virtually everyone who is going to teach go through a school of education.”
“Schools of education are the problem,” he declared. “Until they are done away with—I didn’t say reformed—and reconstituted on a different model than today, there will be no change in the quality of teachers.”
“The things that they teach are completely Mickey Mouse; they are taught to dumb down learning,” Moore continued, citing some specific examples. Rather than teach about the actual U.S. Constitution, for example, Moore said that education schools advise teachers to avoid dispensing real knowledge and encourage them to get students to make up their own constitution. That’s called “active learning, as opposed to passive,” he explained. Also, he said that children are no longer expected to develop their memories by memorizing; such practices are dismissed as “mere rote learning.” And he suggested that teaching grammar is scorned by much of the education school establishment as well.
“I think they’re hostile to actual learning,” he said.
But eliminating state certification requirements will be an uphill battle, to say the least. North Carolina state representative Hugh Blackwell said that, while the discussion at this event was “about the need to eliminate certification barriers,” elsewhere in Raleigh there was another conference, sponsored by the National Governors Association, which was exploring “how to enhance certification.”
Another favorite solution was to focus teacher education on subject knowledge rather than the sort of preparation favored by most education schools and certification and licensure boards, which keynote speaker and long-time reading education expert Sandra Stotsky called “content-lite skills.” Richard Brake, the national director of education at Intercollegiate Studies Institute, said that prospective teachers should be taught “the subject, not the tactics.”
The “study the subject, learn to teach by doing” approach gained credibility in North Carolina in 2010 when the UNC system published a report that said Teach For America participants were frequently among the most effective high school teachers in the state. TFA teachers are an elite group of new or recent graduates, often from prestigious schools, who majored in non-education subjects. They receive five weeks of teacher training in a summer “boot-camp” before entering the classroom, and generally outperform their education school-trained peers.
Hillsdale’s Moore adopted a recruiting strategy similar to TFA’s when he ran a charter school in Colorado. He hired “liberal arts majors from liberal arts colleges” rather than education school graduates. “I found it better to hire somebody with a degree in English than somebody who struggles with the language themselves.” He added that some good teachers come out of the education schools: “They’re the ones who want to teach so badly they’re willing to persevere through all that mind-numbing rubbish.”
The problem of poor quality teachers is so systemic that only drastic measures will work, according to Stotsky. She named her talk “Why We Must Raise the Bar for Entry to an Education School,” because they frequently admit people who lack the necessary academic ability to teach. Stotsky cited a test given to recent education school graduates in Massachusetts on elementary school level mathematics. An amazing 75 percent failed, prompting her to wonder “how do teachers teach math when they can’t do it themselves?”
Stotsky also contrasted teacher certification, which seems to reduce the level of teaching, to medical licensure, which raised them. She referred to the Flexner Report from the early 20th century, which caused many medical schools to raise their entrance standards, restricting admission to the “top 10 to 20 percent” of applicants. As a result of the report, many medical schools closed their doors and there was a large reduction in the number of doctors, but the practice of medicine—and the health of the nation—improved dramatically.
She said that, if educators wished to improve their performance and be taken seriously as professionals, as did medical doctors, undergraduate teacher education programs should cease. Universities should instead follow a European-style system, in which teachers must have degrees in academic subjects—even master’s degrees—before attending education classes.
Several participants focused on specific procedural solutions; UNC-Wilmington education professor Martin Kozloff, who works with many low-income elementary school students, and Denise Kent, the principal of North Carolina’s largest public charter school, both cited the Direct Instruction method as a way to improve reading levels. Direct Instruction focuses on intense drilling and many studies have shown it to be an effective tool. However, it has many detractors, even those who favor its focus on phonics for reading instruction, since it is seen as overly scripted and confining for teachers.
Kozloff added that much of the problem is that education schools have lost a clear set of objectives and that university education leaders have become arrogant, defensive, and egoistic. As a result, they have shifted the focus from training teachers to teach the skills children will need for future learning and working to “vague mission statements with political objectives.”
He cited an unnamed book that has been use to teach “hundreds of thousands of education school graduates” over the years as an example of the “nonsense” that is pushed onto future teachers in this unfocused atmosphere: “learning is continuous, spontaneous, and effortless, requiring no particular attention, conscious motivation, or specific reinforcement.”
Kozloff fumed at that idea: “If you’re talking about sucking on a lollipop, that’s true, but anything more complex than that requires effort, attention, and motivation.”
When prompted by Pope Center president Jane Shaw to mention positive developments, Moore said he sees “a hunger” by parents for change from the current mediocrity. Andrew Lakis, who coordinates TFA activities in eastern North Carolina, said that there are more alternate routes to enter the teaching profession than before, and that there is an increasing pressure for accountability.
Moore had one additional suggestion that could solve the problem of discovering the best way to train teachers: “Let school principals hire anybody they want to, with or without certification, and compare them side-by-side.”
That might be the only way to cut through all the rhetoric to get to actual reform.