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Education Opinion

Undue Influence

October 01, 2001 3 min read
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Our institutions of higher learning have played a critical role in shaping the nation’s public schools, but, unfortunately, their influence has been largely negative.

Colleges and universities have pretty much gotten off scot-free as blame has been passed around for the current state of American public education, when, in fact, they should be at the front of the line. Our institutions of higher learning have played a critical role in shaping the nation’s public schools, but, unfortunately, their influence has been largely negative.

The most egregious example is their preparation of teachers. Studies consistently document that many soon-to-be educators leave college unprepared in either pedagogy or the subjects they teach. A significant percentage has difficulty passing licensure exams, and many teachers, especially those who leave the profession within the first few years, tend to be critical of preparation programs.

College officials know this, but they continue to offer teacher-prep programs that have low standards for admissions and graduation, are rarely academically rigorous, and are often not relevant to the challenges teachers face in the classroom. Liberal arts faculty tend to hold education schools in low esteem, and there is little collaboration to ensure that prospective teachers get the academic grounding they need in the subjects they will teach. Can you imagine medical schools approaching studies with this attitude?

Many soon-to-be educators leave college unprepared in either pedagogy or the subjects they teach.

Perhaps colleges are reluctant to make teacher-prep programs more rigorous because the programs are often cash cows, making much more money than they cost. Institutions of higher learning also rake in more than $15 billion annually just in tuition and fees for the evening and summer courses teachers take to earn advanced degrees and increase their salaries—courses that seldom lead to better teaching.

These same institutions also shape public schools through their admissions requirements. What goes on in high schools has almost always been significantly influenced by colleges. If students are to have a shot at higher education, schools must provide them with curricula that conform to college requirements. And in setting admissions standards, colleges and universities don’t consider what might be best for the healthy development of adolescents; instead, they aim to tailor the student to a college faculty and its curriculum. As a result, high schools emphasize seat time and scoring well on standardized tests, often at the expense of learning.

Finally, institutions of higher learning exert a powerful influence over schools by placing an undue emphasis on athletics—particularly football and basketball. Colleges and universities have become a farm system for the professional leagues, and high schools, in turn, are feeder institutions for colleges. Up for grabs are millions of dollars in scholarships, waived or lowered admissions requirements, and a host of prerogatives for promising athletes.

It’s probably naive to believe that concern for kids, and society overall, should motivate higher education officials to raise the quality of teacher preparation and reconsider admissions requirements. But administrators and faculty members must know it’s in their own best interests to work toward those goals. After all, colleges accept students from schools staffed by the teachers they trained.

What goes on in high schools has almost always been significantly influenced by colleges.

Today, about 70 percent of high school graduates pursue postsecondary education. But 25 percent of them require remediation, and as many as half drop out-a rate comparable to that of poor-performing high schools in major urban districts. In terms of productivity, higher education gets a very low grade: The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded today is the same as it was in 1950.

There is movement in some states to create K-16 school boards to strengthen the relationship between public schools and colleges. The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education has been working diligently to improve teacher-preparation programs. The Education Trust, individual teacher-prep programs, and other organizations also have joined the effort to raise quality. But real progress will be achieved only when college presidents, provosts, and deans recognize their obligation to help improve public schools and provide responsible leadership.

—Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2001 edition of Teacher as Undue Influence

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