The pitiful state of schools of education in this country was underscored by a 2013 study by the National Council on Teacher Quality finding that only 10 percent of 1,200 programs examined were adequate (“Help Teachers Before They Get to Class,” The New York Times, Oct. 14). The situation is actually worse because there are hundreds of alternative certification paths that have come into being since then but have not been systematically evaluated.
California serves as a case in point. According to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, training relies heavily on “addressing racist attitudes, gender bias and classism - creating a professional identity so the person is philosophically disposed to becoming a good teacher.” That’s fine, but what about instruction on methods that have been proven effective? Isn’t that why schools of education exist in the first place?
But before jumping to conclusions about what should be done to better prepare teachers for the classroom, it’s important to bear in mind the lessons learned from medical schools. At the turn of the 20th century, medical education as it was taught in many schools was called a “farce” by the head of the Council on Medical Education. As a result, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council of Medical Education in 1908 jointly commissioned Abraham Flexner to investigate. In 1910, Flexner issued a blistering indictment recommending that the majority of the 155 institutions he studied be immediately closed.
It’s tempting to do the same with the 1,400 schools of education. Too many offer vacuous courses that are taught by professors who have little, if any, practical teaching experience in public schools. Others incorporate the latest fads before there is evidence to support them. But shuttering these schools will only exacerbate the problem. There are some 3.3 million teachers in the country. That compares with about 1 million physicians. Where will new teachers come from?
Even if all existing teacher preparation programs were brought up to acceptable standards, there’s no assurance that will help recruit and retain the best and brightest college graduates to the classroom. Teaching today is less rewarding than ever before as a result of the accountability movement that has turned classrooms into test preparation factories. Further, women, who once comprised a steady stream of talent from college to classroom, now have more and better opportunities in the private sector.
Pointing to Finland as a model is the usual solution offered by reformers. But Finland has only 62,000 teachers and 600,00 students in 3,500 schools. Moreover, teachers are trusted and admired professionals on a par with doctors. The U.S. can’t compete on that basis. The sheer number of teachers alone needed to teach the 48.2 million students enrolled in the 98,000 public schools mean lower-achieving college graduates will need to be accepted. Selectivity must yield to practicality.
Although schools of education have been the subject of sharp criticism for decades, it is only now that they are in the limelight because of agreement that teachers are the single most important in-school factor in learning. Lacking is a consensus on what they need to prepare them for the realities of the classroom. Medical schools after the Flexner report had no such problem. They all agreed that scientific competence was the basis, and took steps to change the curriculum.
It’s time that schools of education followed in the same tracks.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.