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Teaching Profession Opinion

Does the Route to Teaching Need a Fresh Start?

By Martin L. Gross — February 16, 2000 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 8 min read
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Corrected: It was incorrectly stated that prospective teachers in Pennsylvania had earned a C-plus grade point average in high school. The essay should have said that most education schools in the state require a minimum 2.5 gpa for college students seeking admission to teacher-preparation programs.

The system at work in schools of education replicates the unreformed selection-and-training method that once existed in medicine, and is at the core of many problems that now confront American public schools.

Prior to 1910, most American physicians either apprenticed or went directly from high school to medical college, a system that produced a large number of inferior doctors. That year, with financing from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Abraham Flexner, a former teacher, published his study of medical education. He concluded that physicians were generally poorly selected and trained in unscientific “diploma mills.”

As a result of Flexner’s work, the states subsequently closed all undergraduate schools of medicine. They made the training of doctors a postgraduate course for the brightest college graduates, the system now in effect.

Today, we face the same dilemma in the selection and training of our public school teachers. Most teachers enter the profession directly after high school, going to one of the 1,300 schools and departments of education. After receiving a degree in education or its equivalent, they pass a simple licensing examination and are certified to teach in our schools.

This system is badly flawed. It replicates the unreformed selection-and-training method that once existed in medicine, and is at the core of many problems that now confront American public schools.

Most developed nations have advanced beyond that. They select better students as future teachers and train them in non-education colleges with a strong curriculum of knowledge, or “content” as educators call it. Germany, for example, requires that teachers first complete a regular four-year college without education courses before going on to postgraduate teacher training.

Some American teachers do the same, but they make up only a relatively small minority of our K-12 teacher cadre.

What’s wrong with our system of trainees—what the profession calls “preservice teachers"—generally going directly from high schools to schools and colleges of education?

Virtually everything. The first problem is the selection procedure. Since education schools usually have lower admission standards than regular liberal arts and science colleges, they attract a weaker student body.

An Educational Testing Service study showed that those high school students who intended to become teachers scored near the bottom on the SAT college-entrance exam.

An Educational Testing Service study showed that those high school students who intended to become teachers scored near the bottom on the SAT college-entrance exam. They scored only 964 out of a possible 1600, while typical students scored 1016 and suburban children closer to 1050. A similar situation exists on the ACT admissions test.

But educators countered that these studies involved only students who intended to become teachers. What about those who actually entered training?

That question was answered in Pennsylvania by the state’s secretary of education, Eugene Hickok. He studied the high school grades of every teacher trainee in the state’s 91 colleges. The result? The would-be teachers had scored only a C-plus average in high school, well below the norm, just before coming to their undergraduate schools of education. This is a clear demonstration of insufficient academic skill for such a demanding profession as teaching.

Many teachers are bright, and most are dedicated to their calling. But that does not gainsay the fact that as a group they lag behind their academic colleagues. On the Graduate Record Examinations, taken by college seniors, educators score at the bottom of the eight graded professions.

The second problem is that once in an education school, trainees take a thin, eccentric curriculum. Thirty to 40 credits are devoted to learning “how” to teach, rather than “what” to teach. This is the stubborn sine qua non of the profession. The theory is that only by knowing the sociological and psychological basis of learning can we teach children, a concept that is increasingly shown to be false.

The education laws are plainly discriminatory against scholars.

The education college curriculum stresses such courses as Childhood Development and Adolescent Behavior, and rests its professionalism on often unproven psychological theory rather than on advanced courses in content, whether English, history, science, or mathematics. In fact, the liberal arts and science requirements in schools of education are often not any more extensive than those of a two-year community college.

But what about the fact that a majority of our teachers now hold master’s degrees in education? Unfortunately, that advanced study is also overwhelmingly weighted toward “how” to teach, with little actual academic content.

Surely, though, our middle and high school teachers who specialize take a curriculum worthy of our students.

Hardly. In almost every state, teachers seeking specialty training—say in mathematics—take fewer credits in their specialty than do ordinary college students. In my state, Connecticut, for example, to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics at the state university, a student must complete 40 credits in math. But to train to be a high school math teacher, one need take only 30 credits. In Pennsylvania, the regular bachelor’s program in mathematics requires that students pass integral and differential calculus. But those training to become math teachers are excused from these difficult calculus courses, studying the simplistic History of Mathematics instead.

If the selection and training of teachers is poor, then how do private schools manage to get good teachers? Not by paying higher salaries, which good teachers, public and private, surely deserve. Private schools typically pay less than public schools. The answer is that by law in virtually every state, private schools need not hire certified teachers. Nor do they usually want to.

Parochial and secular private schools generally hire whom they want as long as the teacher has a college degree. Choate Rosemary Hall, one of the nation’s top secondary schools (Choate alumni include President John F. Kennedy), has over 100 faculty members with strong academic backgrounds, but only three are state-certified.

The education laws are plainly discriminatory against scholars. Many are forced to teach in private schools and community colleges, losing valuable talent for the public schools. In fact, our K-12 education system is topsy-turvy academically. A summa cum laude graduate of Yale in history, for example, cannot teach history in my public high school because he is not an education graduate. Supposedly, he or she does not know “how” to teach. Yet such scholars often teach successfully in private schools, proving the fallacy of that theorem.

Then why do we need undergraduate schools of education at all? The answer is that we do not.

Further proof comes in the form of a trend toward “alternative certification,” in which college graduates without education backgrounds are invited to teach. In New Jersey, where a pioneer program was begun in the 1980s, graduates of regular colleges who want to teach can start teaching immediately, picking up methods as they progress. The program has spread to California and Texas, where alternatively certified teachers receive a short training course before they begin. According to state spokespeople, these teachers are often more mature and stay on the job longer than do education school graduates. A New Jersey peer review showed that that state’s basically “untrained” alternative-certification teachers were on the whole superior to regularly certified teachers, coming from better colleges and with better grades.

There is little doubt that the present system of selecting and training public school teachers does not fit the need. It is probably the reason the American K-12 curriculum is so thin. Only one in five American high school graduates has studied trigonometry, physics, or geography, according to federal statistics. Only about half the students have taken chemistry or intermediate algebra.

There is little doubt that the present system of selecting and training public school teachers does not fit the need.

It may also explain why on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams, 38 percent of 4th graders are not reading at grade level, and why a majority of high school seniors have never heard of Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, the Great Society, the Marshall Plan, or know the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation. Nor can they find Southeast Asia or the Mediterranean Sea on an unmarked map.

The strongest remedy for most of our K-12 problems is to close all undergraduate schools of education. We should instead select our teachers from a pool of superior non-education graduates of colleges of liberal arts and sciences. Practice teaching and some training in instructional methods should follow, with a de-emphasis on so-called educational psychology.

This would go a long way toward solving what some pessimists believe is the intractable dilemma shaped by our presently weak American public schools—schools that can, and must, be academically revived.


Martin L. Gross, a writer and social scientist, is the author of The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools (Harper Collins). A past recipient of the National Education Association’s School Bell Award, he has written several best-selling nonfiction works, including The End of Sanity, The Government Racket: Washington Waste From A to Z, The Psychological Society, and The Doctors. He lives in Greenwich, Conn.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2000 edition of Education Week as Does the Route to Teaching Need a Fresh Start?

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