“No Professional Teacher Should Major in Education”

by Robert Pondiscio
November 13th, 2012

Sometimes, it takes someone outside the field of education to speak the truth.  Historian David McCullough says no professional teacher should major in education.

The award-winning biographer of Harry Truman and John Adams was profiled on CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday, and his comments highlighted over at The Answer Sheet.  He notes that Americans are “historically illiterate” and tells the depressing story of meeting a student who “came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she’d never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast.”

“And I thought, ‘What are we doing that’s so wrong, so pathetic?’ I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. Now, it’s not their fault. It’s our fault. And when I say our fault I don’t mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. The stories around the family dinner table. I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history.’

McCullough believes we need to “seriously revamp, the teaching of the teachers.”

“I don’t feel that any professional teacher should major in education. They should major in a subject, know something. The best teachers are those who have a gift and the energy and enthusiasm to convey their love for science or history or Shakespeare or whatever it is. ‘Show them what you love’ is the old adage. And we’ve all had them, where they can change your life. They can electrify the morning when you come into the classroom.

I’ve long favored organizing teacher training around subject matter, rather than what Leon Botstein once termed “the pseudoscience of pedagogy.”  I’ve also never been able to resist seeing teaching, like writing, not as a “profession” but as craft work.   The best writers and teachers master their subject, and then find their voice.


Questioning the Teacher Quality Orthodoxy

by Robert Pondiscio
October 19th, 2010

Teachers might be the most important in-school factor in student achievement, but is that necessarily a good thing?  Dan Willingham’s latest at the Washington Post Answer Sheet blog notes that when teachers are viewed as the essential ingredient in reform models, the impetus is to fire unsatisfactory teachers and hire better ones.  “I’m no economist, but this approach sounds expensive,” Dan writes. ”If teaching were more consistent,” he notes, “characteristics of individual teachers wouldn’t matter so much.”

For example, we might try to make teaching more consistent by improving teacher preparation. Right now, teacher preparation just doesn’t matter very much. Most teachers say that it didn’t help them, and there is scant evidence that the type of training teachers receive has much impact on their teaching.  Naturally, if teacher training has little impact, and teachers are left to their own devices, characteristics of the teacher will end up mattering a lot to teacher quality.

Willingham also points out that a consistent curriculum might also make teacher quality a less volatile variable by making lesson content more consistent across teachers.  A set curriculum might hamper the creativity of individual teachers, but Willingham cites the words of one principal who told him: “With my really good teachers, if they bend the curriculum, I kind of look the other way. But I don’t look the other way with my struggling teachers. For them, it’s a safety net.”

“It could be that both or neither of these ideas, if pursued in any detail would prove workable. But alternatives should at least be considered,” Dan concludes.  “Teachers are the most important in-school factor; we should not automatically assume that’s a desirable state of affairs.”

Who Blames Teachers?

by Robert Pondiscio
August 5th, 2010

Guest posting at Eduwonk, Tim Daly of the New Teacher Project purports to “unmask the blame-the-teacher crowd.”  

“Strangely, nobody can credibly identify any members of this nefarious crowd. We know who’s not in the group. Not Barack Obama, who has made clear that he is “110 percent behind our teachers,” and made good on it by supporting tens of billions of dollars to save teacher jobs. Not Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who recently paid tribute to teachers and said that his “job is to fight for them, empower them and support them.” Not even Bill Gates, who earned multiple standing ovations during his speech to the AFT convention. In fact, the only people talking about blaming teachers are the ones supposedly defending them from this threat.

Fair enough.  Point taken.  No one “blames the teacher.”  To the contrary, we “support our teachers” just like we “support our troops” regardless of our feelings about the wars they wage.  The question to be asked is whether “we support teachers” is a meaningful statement or an empty platitude.

The typical teacher in a low-performing school was poorly trained, has no say over curriculum (and as often as not, no curriculum whatsoever), little leverage on disciplinary issues, and often has to prepare and deliver lessons in a manner explicitly prescribed by administrators, consultants or others. Professional development typically adds nothing of value, and administrative feedback when given too often tends toward management by checklist, principally concerned with ostensible “visible evidence of learning,” such as kids working in cooperative groups, up-to-date student work on classroom bulletin boards, and lesson aims and standards written on the board in child-friendly language.

When teachers succeed under these conditions, we support them. When they fail, we may not “blame” them, but neither do we ask why they fail. And there’s the rub. Remaining incurious about why well-intentioned, hard-working people fail despite their best efforts and doing what they’ve been asked how they’ve been directed may not be “blaming them,” per se.

But it’s close.

Education Research a “National Scandal”

by Robert Pondiscio
May 10th, 2010

If we want to hold teachers accountable for student achievement, education research must we must do a better job of providing rigorous, high-quality research on what works, writes Newsweek science writer Sharon Begley.  Using a baseball analogy, Begley writes that as pay-for-performance spreads, “we will be punishing teachers for, in some cases, using the pedagogic equivalent of foam bats.”

“It goes without saying that effective teaching has many components, from dedication to handling a classroom and understanding how individual students learn. But a major ingredient is the curriculum the school requires them to use. Yet in one of those you’ve-got-to-be-kidding situations, the scientific basis for specific curricular materials, and even for general approaches such as how science should be taught, is so flimsy as to be a national scandal.”

“There is a dearth of carefully crafted, quantitative studies on what works,” William Cobern of Western Michigan University tells Newsweek. “It’s a crazy situation.”

Begley’s argument only scratches the surface.  Teacher training programs in schools of education are, to put it charitably, of uneven quality.  Teachers have no say on curriculum (and more often than not no curriculum at all) and little control over the pedagogical methods they employ.  School environment and disciplinary policies are above their pay grade.  In sum, the proposition for a classroom teacher too often boils down to this:  take your third-rate training, your lack of meaningful feedback, your absence of meaningful professional development, this content-free, feel-good pedagogy, and teach it in the cognitively suspect way we demand.  And if you fail, the fault is…yours! 

Yeah, that’ll work.   It has to, in fact, because we’re all about accountability.

Reading Research: Looking Where the Light is Better

by Robert Pondiscio
January 12th, 2010

There’s an old joke about a drunk looking his wallet under a streetlight instead of in the dark alley where he dropped it?  Why?  “Because the light’s better here.”  

I thought of that joke when reading Dan Willingham’s latest over at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.  Willingham has written extensively about the importance of background knowledge to reading comprehension and the limited benefit of reading strategies instruction.  Dan’s observation, “teaching content IS teaching reading” has become my personal mantra.  But if it’s true, then why the continued focus on reading strategy instruction in teacher training and professional development?

Anti-intellectualism?  No.  Dan’s thesis is both simple and surprising: it’s a function of how academic research is carried out.  For starters, educational research is “a more conservative enterprise than you might think” and there are structural incentives rewarding short-term research in which measurable effects are easy to isolate.”

Consider what it takes to do research on strategy instruction versus knowledge instruction. Teaching children reading strategies is quick. A research project might call for 10 or 20 lessons in total, each lasting 30 minutes or less. One can imagine getting a school administrator’s permission to do such a study in his or her district.  But the hypothesis for knowledge instruction is that it takes years to make a broad impact on students’ knowledge.

Measuring the effects of background knowledge would require a whole new curriculum across grades  for validity.  “A researcher will not (and should not) persuade a school administrator to change curricula just for the sake of a research project,” Dan writes.

The comparative ease of doing reading strategies research combined with the inherent conservatism of the research process means that most reading research is strategy research, and that there is a dearth of research on the impact of a knowledge-rich curriculum on reading. Researchers usually find that strategy instruction leads to big effects, but they are not looking at it long-term.”

In short, researchers are looking where the light is better, not where the answers are.

Indoctrination and Dispositions

by Robert Pondiscio
December 1st, 2009

The University of Minnesota’s ed school has found itself embroiled in controversy after a newspaper columnist claimed the school is seeking to indoctrinate would-be teachers with radical ideologies–and might prevent those who do not toe the line from teaching.  As described by Katherine Kersten, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune,

The Race, Culture, Class and Gender Task Group at the U’s College of Education and Human Development recommended that aspiring teachers there must repudiate the notion of “the American Dream” in order to obtain the recommendation for licensure required by the Minnesota Board of Teaching. Instead, teacher candidates must embrace — and be prepared to teach our state’s kids — the task force’s own vision of America as an oppressive hellhole: racist, sexist and homophobic.

The “oppresive hellhole” language is Kersten’s own; it appears nowhere in the task force report.  Here’s the passage in question:

The story of the United States is often told in terms of the American Dream….Future teachers will understand that despite an ideal about what is considered common culture in the United States, that many groups are typically not included within this celebrated cultural identity and more often than not, many students with multi-generational histories in the United States are routinely perceived to be new immigrants or foreign. That such exclusion is frequently a result of dissimilarities in power and influence. 

Jean K. Quam, the dean of UM’s ed school responds in the Star Tribune that discussion of these issues is not indoctrination. “Our belief is that acknowledging these issues is essential to teacher and student success and that ignoring them will not make them go away,” she writes. “A teacher with expert subject knowledge but without skills to connect with students or to be flexible and inventive in the classroom is an ineffective teacher,” she says.  

All well and good, but one still might ask to what degree the University concerns itself with ensuring its graduates are teachers with “expert subject knowledge,” something that is typically not a huge ed school concern.  The UM controversy raises the issue of ed schools insistence on evaluating teacher ”dispositions,” a hot-button term for many.  In a 2007 Education Next piece, Kent State professor Laurie Moses Hines questioned the purpose of such assessments:

Whether the standard is mental hygiene or possessing the proper political and ideological disposition, the elimination of candidates who do not pass muster gives teacher educators the power to determine who gains access to a classroom based on the values the teacher educators prefer. While the courts have permitted certifying agencies to require “good moral character” of teacher applicants, as legal scholars Martha McCarthy and Nelda Cambron-McCabe note, they “will intervene…if statutory or constitutional rights are abridged.” Thus, while pledging loyalty to federal and state constitutions is a permissible condition for obtaining a teacher license, swearing an oath to progressivism is not. Given the evidence and the history, there should be real concern, as teacher educator Gary Galluzzo has said, that “students’ views and personalities are being used against them” whenever dispositions are assessed. Those committed to academic freedom within higher education should be concerned when professional socialization trumps freedom of conscience in teacher education programs.

As a purely practical matter, one wonders why “dispositions” are a criteria at all in determining who gets to teach, and if time might be better spent ensuring future teachers have mastered their subject and craft, and are well-prepared to be effective classroom managers.  It seems reasonable to say that far more ground is sacrificed by teachers who are overwhelmed and unprepared than by those who are not, er, correctly disposed. 

(via Joanne Jacobs)

How to Start an Argument

by Robert Pondiscio
July 20th, 2009

Over the weekend, as Tom Watson made his historic run to win the British Open, I ventured an opinion long held but never uttered out loud that “any sport where a 59-year-old can beat guys in their 20s is not a sport, but a skill.”  Winning a major golf tournament, it seems to me, might have more in common with winning a violin competition than, say, winning the 400-meter hurdles or the individual medley in swimming at the Olympics.   If age does not preclude you from performing at an elite leve, what does that say about golfers as athletes?

Now I’m wondering about teaching:  Can an alternatively certified 22-year-old really outperform a 59-year old veteran?  And, if so, what does it say about teaching as a “profession.”

A Flexner Report for Education?

by Robert Pondiscio
March 9th, 2009

Patrick “Eduflack” Riccards suggests teacher training needs its own version of the Flexner Report — a 1910 report on the wildly uneven quality of medical education in the U.S. that changed the face of the medical profession and led to the closing of half of all the medical schools in the U.S.  “Those that remained bolstered their quality,” Riccards writes, ”turning out a better doctor to meet the growing medical needs of our industrialized nation.”

Isn’t it time for such an approach in teacher education?  Don’t we need a comprehensive study of our teacher training programs, one that focuses on how we crosswalk the latest in teacher educator research with current curricula, ensure that teacher training programs are empowering our teachers with research-based instructional strategies, require clinical hours, build mentoring and support networks, use data in both instruction and intervention, and ensure graduates align with both the content and skill needs of the communities and states they are serving?  Of course we do.  

Riccards suggestion comes in the wake of news that the University of the District of Columbia plans to shut down its undergraduate education department, which has managed to graduate less that ten percent of its students.

Anyone Can Teach!

by Robert Pondiscio
February 13th, 2009

Training or experience? Pedagogy or subject matter expertise?  Utah lawmakers are weighing what makes a good teacher as they consider a bill that would allow anyone with a bachelor’s degree to become a licensed teacher by passing competency tests in the subjects they wish to teach or demonstrating skills in those areas. The bill, SB48, was given preliminary approval Thursday, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Now, most people who lack education degrees but want to become teachers must get approval from the districts in which they hope to teach and then pass subject and pedagogy tests. They may also go through an alternate process that requires them to take education classes before becoming fully licensed, among other things.  SB48 would allow individuals to go directly to the state Board of Education to become licensed and would not require pedagogy classes or tests.

“I know a lot of guys who have retired and are absolutely fabulous and would make wonderful teachers because they understand the marketplace,” says the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Chris Buttars said. “This is long past due.”

“This bill really is an insult to education,” counters another Senator. ”Teachers have a skill set that is unique, developed and is nurtured and trained. I think this bill expands the profession of teaching into a hobby of teaching.”

The bill requires a bachelor’s degree and passing a “rigorous” state test to teach elementary school. Anyone wishing to teach basic middle school and high school subjects would also need at least a bachelor’s degree and would either need to pass a state test or demonstrate competency in the subject with a major, graduate degree or coursework.

The Utah Education Association has come out against the bill.

Guest Blogger Fred Strine: 1984 Now

by Guest Blogger
December 21st, 2008

by Fred Strine

Imagine the widespread panic if doctors nationwide abandoned genuine medical expertise labeling it old-fashioned, out of touch, and insufficient for treating patients. Suppose medical schools focused on patient psychology and beside manner instead of anatomy, diagnosis and prescription therapy. What if your family M.D. suddenly morphed into a wellness facilitator (W.F.) encouraging you to “discover” your own path to better health?  Would you passively accept the change? Would you buy such blithe explanations as, “ We treat the patient, not the disease,” or “Our holistic approach to medicine more thoroughly meets the needs of 21st century patients”?

Before you dismiss the above as demented lunacy, please recognize this is no updated 1984 scenario. In reality we’re not talking about the medical profession of the future. We are talking about the education profession in America NOW. The parallels are frightening but all too true.

Most teachers certified in the last decade or so are teaching subjects they never majored in. Your children are in their classes. Parents expect subject mastery and expertise from today’s educators, but both are sadly missing. It’s outright deception on a massive scale.  Education professors and their required courses brainwash future teachers into believing anyone schooled in child psychology and progressive education doctrine can facilitate learning anything in any discipline.  This notion is recycled rubbish, fermented and fomented in the compost heap of American ed. philosophy. It’s been with us since before the turn of the 20th century, but it’s news to American parents.

The teaching profession in 2009 is populated with young teachers too inexperienced to know anything different, established teachers too in debt to risk job security, and endangered traditional teachers too rare and too ostracized to be taken seriously. Administrators and union officials entrenched in John Dewey progressive dogma salivate over anticipated government grants using your tax money. Meanwhile parents and traditionalists within the system are ignored and castigated.

Ideologues thoroughly proficient in “edu-speak” euphemisms run American public schools today. They’re public relations experts keeping parents happy but out of touch. I’d call their obfuscation a national swindle. “Child-centered” certainly passes a hoodwinked public’s apple-pie test. “Outcome-based” assures everyone of attainable goals. “Pathways” pacify parents concerned about directionless kids. “Constructivist” no doubt betokens a solid “back to basics” foundation.

But wait. These sound-good sound bites represent updates of a progressive ed. philosophy in high fashion way back in the late 1800s. Thoroughly discredited ever since, progressive ed. has reinvented itself every generation with new “edu-speak” jargon.  Just ask any veteran teacher old enough to have survived the cycles.

These specious catch phrases reflect the views of well-intentioned but wrong-headed utopians who invariably thought socialism would save the world. Their adherents still reside in ivory-tower academia, bad mouthing America and willfully ignoring the horrific lessons of the Soviet Union, Communist China, and Cuba. Worst of all, these education Ph.D.’s are teaching our teachers and have been since the ‘60s.

The shocking truth is today’s public schools don’t even attempt to provide a solid academic foundation for ALL students. It’s what parents expect and what parents thought they were getting. Only students who opt for college prep courses get a shot at solid academics, and practically speaking even these classes have been systematically dumbed down during the 37 years since I began teaching.

Schools don’t promote independent thinking anymore. Even math problem solving routinely becomes a group project. Ninth graders, supposedly algebra ready, still cannot add, subtract, multiply or divide on paper. At 58, I managed simple math in my head before my students figured out which calculator keys to push. They thought I was a math whiz. The difference is 45 years ago I learned my times tables. Memorizing anything nowadays “ist verboten!” in progressive ed. America—has been for decades.

Today’s facilitators (edu-speak for teacher) think their job is merely helping kids learn on their own during group “discovery” sessions. In English, my chosen field, I was the only teacher in my department who failed to embrace the facilitator approach. Today’s facilitators have no clue about the expertise a traditional English teacher was expected to display “back in the day.”  (Aside: Good thing my current M.D. memorized the location of my appendix. Glad he didn’t have to operate by the “discovery” method.)

Of my 28 colleagues in the English dept. only one other geezer and I know what a direct object is. My grammar diagnostic test routinely given to 7th graders in the 70s proved way too tough for my current high school TEACHER colleagues. Our Language Arts department has no Standard English textbooks. The facilitators wouldn’t use them anyway. “Besides, nobody cares about stuff like subject-verb agreement anymore,” I’ve been told. Meanwhile glaring errors such as, “Her and me feel the same,” pass muster with both students AND their facilitators.

With group work practically universal, cheating is rampant and registers little social stigma among students. Street-wise “players” within groups dump responsibility on the smart ones, hoping to slide by with the least effort possible. No longer does a high school diploma guarantee even basic subject expertise. Students are, however, well rehearsed in co-operative activities with their peers, and they do feel good about themselves.

If schools and young teachers committed to groupthink activities were truly honest, they’d start granting one group diploma on graduation day. That practice would certainly shorten ceremonies, but would Emily Spitzer, Group Diploma Recipient #247 who plans to become a neuro-surgeon, qualify for a 21st century med. school? Hope she finds some smart lab partners!

Wise up, America. By default public education has declared the earth flat again and fallen off the edge. Somebody please re-discover Pythagoras, and let’s get back to a truly well-rounded, grounded education for all.

Fred Strine recently retired after teaching for 36 years in the Seattle area.