Who Should Educate the Educators?

The Chronicle of Higher Education
September 21, 2011

By Richard Vedder

For the first quarter of a millennium after the establishment of Harvard College, teachers with college educations studied the liberal arts or for the ministry. As we approached 1900, that began to change, and state supported normal schools grew up all over the country, from which even today a large proportion of our elementary and secondary teachers come. Was the move to turn the teaching of teachers into a separate “profession” with its own school or college within universities a smart one?

Critics of the education schools, of which I have been one, usually make several arguments. First, the outcomes of students taught by our K-12 teachers is abysmal on average, and while not all of that, or maybe even most of it, can be blamed on the training of the teachers, clearly that training has not worked to promote academic excellence among our children.

Second, there is abundant evidence that colleges of education tend to challenge their students little. Grade data show that typically students average above a 3.5 grade-point average in education courses, markedly higher than in other university offerings (where grade inflation is also a problem in my view). Yet at many schools, the students coming into education on average are weaker than the typical student, with relative poor high-school academic performance, mediocre admission test scores, etc.

Third, in some cases mindless education courses have crowded out study of subject matter that would improve teacher abilities to convey similar knowledge to students. Sometimes the students learn little because the teachers know little.

Fourth, there is something of an anti-knowledge culture in many education schools, where learning facts is disparaged. Worse, the education colleges have been great promoters of the highly dubious idea that self-esteem is critically important. Thus American high-school students think they are pretty good at math, while international test score results suggest that, on average, they are fairly mediocre. The education schools are anti-intellectual, anti-academic, and promote a dangerously overly optimistic mindset amongst students as to their accomplishments.

Fifth, schools of education have worked hand in glove in some cases with teacher unions to convince legislators or state educrats to keep archaic practices regarding teacher certification that prevent some able persons from getting education degrees. I once met a Naval Academy graduate who wanted to switch to becoming a high-school math teacher, but didn’t because of the mindless education courses he would have to take first. I find it amazing that in America we let professors teach 18-year-olds without a day of pedagogical training, often in lectures with 500 or more other students, while, simultaneously, regard a myriad of course requirements before a certificate is given to permit teaching 17-year-old kids.

The bottom line: I have long favored defunding schools of education, disallowing state subsidies to universities for courses taken in them, and even making it a crime for school superintendents to knowingly hire graduates of colleges of education (that may be going to far, I admit).

With all of this in mind, I agreed to be on Steven Roy Goodman’s “Higher Education Today” show recently on WUDC, a Washington-based TV station (broadcast airs on September 25), along with Margaret Crocco, dean of the College of Education at the University of Iowa. I went into the discussion expecting to do battle, so I was really surprised at how much Margaret and I at least partially agreed.

Dean Crocco, for example, actually agreed there were too many schools of education, and seemed to agree that teachers need to have a liberal-arts based major before obtaining teacher certification. She reminded me that within the vast community of college of education leaders there is some diversity of opinion and not a monolithic commitment to defend the status quo. For any of you interested in watching the discussion between Steve (himself a bright, engaging private admissions counselor/adviser), Margaret and me, see us on You Tube.

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