When the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its report last year, its conclusions, however dramatically stated, did not address what may be the most serious aspect of the crisis: the education of teachers.
One need not read a mound of studies to reach the conclusion that teacher education is in bad shape; close exposure to a typical teacher-preparation program will suffice. I had such an exposure in New Jersey during the 1982-83 academic year, at a four-year state college that is one of six in the state offering major teacher-preparation programs. The particular college will go unnamed, but because there is little statewide variation in the nature of the programs and the credentials of their faculties, the school serves very well as a composite.
After having spent eight years as a member of the history departments of several colleges, including St. John’s University in New York and Drew University in New Jersey, and another five years in publishing, mainly preparing social-studies textbooks, I desired to return to teaching. Given the realities of the higher-education market, there was a greater likelihood that I would find a job in a high school than in a college. But I did not possess the proper credentials to qualify immediately for high-school teaching.
Although I had collected almost 110 graduate credits, most of them in medieval European and modern British history, I had none in education. I had neglected to acquire “certification.”
In New Jersey, one can obtain certification in several ways. One is to major in education as an undergraduate. To get high-school certification at the college I attended requires a minimum of 55 education credits. Someone who already has a degree can enter special certification programs, most of them offered through state colleges. With few exceptions, these require 43 undergraduate credits in education, including a period of student teaching. Because these institutions provide access to the mandated student-teaching experience, they can require the equivalent of one and a half years of additional undergraduate education.
Another method--the state’s minimum requirement for certification--is open to students with a minimum of three years’ teaching experience in a nonpublic institution of some sort. This path requires 15 credits in education and student-teaching experience. The people who can benefit most from this method are those who, like me, already have not only a degree, but also at least three years of teaching experience in private schools or colleges. Obviously, I chose this alternative.
The 15-credit requirement consists of one course in educational psychology, two courses in the teaching of reading, one course from a broad category called “Human and Intercultural Relations,” and an elective.
Once enrolled in the program, I began to see firsthand some reasons for the crisis in teacher education.
The broad cultural and educational level of a large majority of the undergraduate education majors with whom I shared my classes was disconcertingly low. These students, nationally and in New Jersey, generally come from the lowest quarter of their high-school graduating classes. In 1982-83, on the verbal portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, 57 percent of the New Jersey seniors who indicated they would major in education scored below 400. And the state’s Department of Education reported that there were some who scored 200 on the tests. This score requires merely sitting for the test, without answering any questions.
Moreover, the content and organization of the courses were a source of immediate apprehension for me and several older degree-holders who attended these classes.
In my educational psychology class, for example, we were supposed to be offered an “analysis of learning theory and its application,” with consideration of “cognition, motivation, tests, and measurements.” That description did not match the actual content of the class. The instructor did not assign a textbook because, he said, no text would include all the most “recent” data on the variety of topics he wanted to cover. From the beginning, however, his lectures depended on research published as far back as 17 to 20 years ago, and he relied heavily on the works of the so-called “romantic education critics.” This group includes John Holt (How Children Fail), Edgar Friedenberg (Coming of Age in America), Charles Reich (The Greening of America), and Paul Goodman, whose Compulsory Mis-Education is the centerpiece of the genre. The essence of their complaint is that schools create an atmosphere made rigid by control, distrust, and the constant fear of punishment.
Children are bored in school because of poor teaching techniques, and they are confused because they are not encouraged to think independently. Schools, in short, are more concerned with indoctrination and control than with thinking.
The educational experiments spawned by these writers and their supporters in teacher-training programs were tried and they generally failed, and an attempt to prepare students for the classroom based on the “romantics” is an exercise in folly.
On the basis of his reading of and agreement with the “romantics,” however, my instructor maintained repeatedly that the principal goal of education is to improve the self-image of pupils.
More than a few parents might think that education has as its purpose the development of skills and critical-thinking ability, and exposure to the substance of one’s cultural heritage.
Ironically, this true believer had difficulty relinquishing his own “pre-conversion” teaching habits, for he delivered his lectures in an unpalatably dogmatic style. Each of his tenets was repeated over and over again, and no deviation from the prepared formula was permitted. His students soon realized that the path to success in his class was to shoot back on exams what he said in class. They also discovered that only chronic absenteeism would lead to a course grade lower than B.
During the first exam, which consisted of 10 short-answer questions, several of my classmates who had done no preparation were openly, defiantly cheating. I and several other students observed this behavior and planned to bring it to the instructor’s attention at the next session. We didn’t have the opportunity--during the next class session we discovered that there would be no point.
That session was devoted to the problem of student “tension.” In the present competitive nature of schooling, the instructor maintained, pupils could not avoid tension, but cheating was one excellent way to relieve it. Knowing that one can cheat and not be punished for it, this instructor stated, will make students less anxious and more willing to keep coming to school and to continue tolerating the otherwise intolerable authoritarian nature of education. One hopes this view is not common among teacher-education professors.
Much of the teaching in other component courses of the certification program was marked by poor preparation, superficial treatment of important topics, ubiquitous chitchat, and poorly devised exams.
Of particular interest to me was a professor who was absent from half of his classes and was consistently tardy for the others. Once, toward the end of the term, when he should have used every minute of available time, he permitted the head of the faculty union to take over the class for more than half of the remaining two-and-a-half-hour sessions to lobby for his organization. The union official, a member of the philosophy department himself, asked the New Jersey students to write letters to their state legislators in favor of a proposal to raise the state sales tax to provide more money for faculty salaries. He distributed paper, envelopes, and the addresses of the appropriate legislators, and went around the room personally collecting the letters, thus imposing on the students considerable pressure to comply with his wishes.
One of the reading teachers administered a short-answer mid-term examination that contained at least 13 errors of fact in 109 questions. For example, there was a question that read: “The word ‘base’ is an example of a word that only has one meaning. True or false?” She gave credit to people who wrote “true.” Another reading teacher asserted that Leonardo da Vinci was dyslexic because he wrote his military treatises in mirror-image code. That the bulk of his nonsecret writings were not in code had not impressed her.
Based on my experience, it would appear that the undereducated student enrolled in state-college education programs is aptly matched by a parochial and inept faculty.
In the face of what is an obviously deficient system of teacher education, and one that faces continuing and dramatic decreases in the number of science and mathematics teachers, New Jersey’s governor, Thomas H. Kean, late last summer introduced a plan that is refreshingly bold and innovative. The plan will go into effect in September 1985.
To attract broadly educated people who already have college degrees in particular subject areas, but who have not been exposed to the questionable benefits of education courses, Governor Kean would offer them provisional certification after they pass a standardized test in their subject area. Their certification would become permanent after one year of practice teaching under the supervision of a master teacher. Because the student-teaching component of current training programs is in practice more important to a future teacher than almost all the coursework, extending this component from the present duration of five to eight weeks to a full year is eminently sensible.
A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 1984 edition of Education Week as The Crisis in Education Is Mainly a Crisis In Teacher Education