My Thoughts on Teacher Education

I have been reading a lot negative opinion about teacher education lately. In fact, critics have gone so far as to say it needs to be abolished in favor of hiring candidates who major strictly in the subject (math, history, English, etc.) that they intend to teach. Criticism seems to center around the following themes:

  • Teachers are not well-versed in their subject matter and waste time in courses on theory, pedagogy, and methodology.
  • Teachers are stupid; most of the time, education majors are at the bottom in terms of SAT scores. They also score poorly on other assessments designed to measure intelligence or competence.
  • Restrictions, such as teacher certification and licensure, keep out good candidates.
  • Even poor teachers get tenure and sit back, coasting on their mediocrity until they retire with fat pensions. There isn’t much that can be done about mediocre teaching under our current systems.

I will admit that I can’t address all of these issues objectively, using statistics and data, but I do have some of my subjective experience upon which to draw. However, where possible, I will attempt to use other evidence.

First, many critics say that teachers are not well-versed in their subject matter and waste time in courses on theory, pedagogy, and methodology. I can speak from my own experience as an English Education major; however, other majors have different requirements, and I’m sure that my university, the University of Georgia, has different requirements from other institutions, also. In order to earn my B.S.Ed., I was required to take six junior/senior level English classes (not English Education, English). It has been a few years, but if I remember correctly, I was required to take a Shakespeare course, a 20th century course, an American literature course, a British literature course, a language course, and an elective. Looking at the current requirements, I see that the elective course is no longer required. At the time, UGA offered two Shakespeare courses, divided into early plays and later plays. I took the one on later plays. To meet my American literature requirement, I took American Realism and Naturalism. To meet my British literature requirement, I took Late Romantic Poetry. To meet my language requirement, I took Dialectology, which was the study of different dialects of English. To meet my 20th century requirement, I took 20th Century American Literature. My elective was a Topics in English course on Celtic Literature. In addition, I took a non-required course on Medieval literature and a course in Southern literature (American). At the time when I was enrolled, English majors in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences at UGA were required to take eight classes. That happens to be the same number of classes I took! It looks as if this has changed, but then I was also on the quarter system, and UGA switched to the semester system after I graduated. In my particular case, I don’t think one can say that I was not well-versed in my subject matter. In fact, I also took extra sophomore level classes in English. I took the required freshman English courses in rhetoric and literature. I was required to take two courses in British (pre-1700 and post 1700) or American literature, but I took all three. I have also continued my education in this area, albeit on my own. I do try to stay current on literature.

Another criticism leveled at education majors is poor performance in tests, such as the SAT. Education is considered the major for the average intellect, the lazy student, the student who couldn’t cut it somewhere else. Again, in my own experience, I can tell you I personally only ever went through school with one education major I felt should not teach because she wasn’t intelligent enough. Aside from that, I mostly had confidence in the competence and intelligence of the classmates I knew. I will admit, however, that in my Foundations of Education course, I was disappointed when my classmates complained about the workload. When my professor relented and shortened an assignment, I wrote him an anonymous note and told him he should not relax his standards as we were to be teachers and needed to be challenged and meet requirements. He figured out I did it and tried to reassure me that he was not relaxing his standards. That was a large class with education majors of every stripe from subject specialists like me to middle grades majors to elementary majors. Once I began working within my major level, with few exceptions, I found my English Education classmates to be very bright and hard-working students. I am not sure they were much different from students in other disciplines. I knew plenty of students in other disciplines, especially during my early college years, who drank too much, never studied, and burned out early. Students who were left in senior year were there, for the most part, because they balanced work and play and studied hard. I will cop to having a low SAT score. Here’s why. I took it exactly once, not realizing that I might be able to combine good math and verbal scores. I also had heard that guessing was penalized in that incorrect questions counted against you more than leaving questions blank, but I couldn’t bring myself to completely believe it, so I filled in every bubble, even when I wasn’t sure. In 1990 terms, my SAT score was certainly OK. In today’s terms, even correcting for the new scoring system, it would be considered low. It was a 1080. I suppose that if I am trying to prove a point, I shouldn’t be coy about my score. I was told by one guidance counselor that “anything over 1000 is OK,” so I wasn’t too worried. At the time I attended UGA, I discovered that freshmen applying to the university had to have a minimum of 1200. I believe this is higher today, even correcting for the new system. I transferred to UGA after my freshman year at a community college. My problem when applying to colleges was that I didn’t really know how to do it, nor did I have guidance from parents, teachers, or my college counselor at school. I didn’t know what to do, so I applied to the community college, thinking I would have another year to sort out where to go. I was embarrassed by my score once I found out UGA’s requirement. I felt kind of stupid. However, once I began attending UGA, I never earned less than a B. I actually earned two C’s at the community college. One could argue that the colleges inflate grades, but I do feel I worked hard for my grades, and I graduated magna cum laude. Looking around at graduation, I noticed that not everyone was able to wear that red and gray tassel that signified this achievement, nor did they all have summa cum laude or cum laude tassels. I didn’t do as well as I should have on the SAT, but it was one test on one day that I didn’t do anything to prepare for. Each year, I take a practice Verbal PSAT. I have not scored a perfect 80 (out of 80) on these practices, but I never score less than 70. I scored in the 97th percentile when I took the Miller Analogies Test, but wound up letting the score expire before I could go to grad school. I am preparing to take the GRE this summer in anticipation of going to grad school for my Master’s degree. I’ll let you know how I do. In terms of statistics regarding the SAT, I found a study that stated the average combined math and verbal SAT score for intended education majors was 964 as compared with 1016 for all college-bound seniors from 1994-1997. You can make of that what you will, I suppose, as the data is older. It does, however, cover a period of time only a few years after I took the SAT in 1989.

A third criticism leveled at the certification process is that it keeps out good candidates who either can’t or are unwilling to jump through the hoops necessary to obtain teaching certificates. A good example I can think of was a story that circulated about 10 years or so ago concerning a retired NASA scientist who was unable to teach math in Georgia because he didn’t have the proper certification. No one denies that a NASA scientist knows his math well enough. Folks were up in arms over that one, and I can see their point. I have known plenty of really bright folks, however, who can’t explain what they know in a way that others who don’t grasp their subject as well can understand. A case in point might be my dad tutoring my mother in algebra when both of them were getting their college educations in the 1990’s. I myself had a math professor who understood his subject, but talked to the black board, barely aware there were students behind him. I earned an A in the course due to the excellent preparation I received from my high school math teachers, who had covered all of the course material in College Algebra up until the last week, which was a bit of calculus. I only made it to pre-calculus in high school, and I didn’t understand the new material introduced. I failed that quiz and only that quiz. The professor was unable to convey the material. I wish I’d had Robert, who sounds like he does a lot to help his college students understand, but my professor was awful. Does this mean I think teachers have to go through teacher education schools in order to be any good? Nah. I work at a private school. We have some uncertified teachers. They are also good teachers. I do, however, think my own particular ed school experience was invaluable for helping me figure out how to teach. Since then I have taken some professional development that was even more valuable still. In order to be certified in Georgia, teachers have to take the Praxis (I took the old Teacher Candidate Test before they phased it out in favor of the Praxis) and take certain required courses. It helps to major in education, because the required courses are part of the curriculum. However, nothing is stopping folks who desire it to major in whatever subject they want to teach — English, math, Spanish, whatever — and getting a Master’s in education, which would not only enable them to earn more money, but also to trot out the belief that they have more understanding of and preparation for their particular subject. Most educators are strongly advised to earn a Master’s anyway, so why not? My argument, however, is that if you don’t feel like taking the education classes, perhaps you can find a private school that is willing to hire you despite not having a certificate. My pay is comparable to those of public school teachers in my area. My benefits are not as good, however, so there is a trade-off. The requirements for a certificate are not terribly onerous, and many systems are willing to hire teachers with provisional certificates, especially in areas of high need, such as math and science. Georgia also has an alternate teacher preparation path that does not involve education schools at all allowing candidates to take a four-week blitz if they want to teach in a critical area. A lot of these folks don’t make it because they don’t have adequate preparation for teaching (despite their Bachelor’s in whatever subject area they want to teach in).

The final accusation I often see leveled at educators is that they earn tenure and wallow in their mediocrity for the remainder of their careers. For that reason, I suppose, Georgia no longer has tenure. I think teachers who began teaching before it was eliminated are grandfathered in and keep their tenure. I know that the rule used to be that teachers acquired tenure after teaching for three years and having their fourth contract offered to them. This is no longer the case. Teachers cannot be fired for no reason, but documentation of incompetence must be presented. I think the due process is fair. Now that I’m at a private school, I don’t really even have that. I can be fired at any time. My school does not need to present evidence that I fail to meet standards as shown on evaluations in order to send me packing. There may be plenty of states and school systems that still have tenure, but I don’t think one can argue with certainty that it is a cause for mediocrity, at least among newer teachers, when it is on the way out.

This has been a really long post, and the gist of it is this: I think it is dangerous to make broad generalizations about education schools and education majors. Because some education major are lazy does not mean all are. Because some don’t know their subject matter does not mean this is true of all. When I see screeds written against education schools, it makes me angry, because I feel the authors prefer to categorize all teacher education programs as utter wastes of time and their graduates as lackluster intellects. People are clearly angry about the state of our schools today. They want to blame the problems on someone, so it’s easy to say our ed schools must not be preparing teachers appropriately. Other factors, such as the influence of the students’ families (to name just one) are not considered by critics of ed schools. It is so much easier to say that our students aren’t learning because they have poorly trained teachers. There is a complex array of reasons why students have difficulty learning, and I don’t think all of the blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of education schools.

Further reading for other perspectives:

Feel free to suggest others in the comments.

4 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Teacher Education”

  1. Almost immediately after I graduated with my B.A. in history and English, I decided that I wanted to teach instead of going to law school, and I was faced with the daunting task of navigating the certification process in a time before transition to teaching programs got off the ground. Sixty-two credit hours and a number of years later, I had a license in hand. I must say that the additional course work in my content area was helpful (yes, I was required to take more English courses), yet many of the education courses were nebulous, impractical, and laden with political viewpoints represented as indisputable, scientific fact. So much of what rouses anger over these schools of education are the implacable political dictums of education profs. I have noticed that many education professors who routinely work with experienced teachers are less political and less theoretical. Could it be that we experienced teachers are less inclined to suffer fools than those supposedly underperforming undergraduates?

  2. Rob, you make a good point and one I didn't consider — politics. I suppose ed schools do have that rep, but any more than regular colleges? Aren't most colleges bastions of liberalism? I didn't care when I was there because I was fairly liberal. Now that I'm moderate, would I mind? I don't know.

  3. Most of the high school teachers with whom I have worked or studied seem to be as intelligent as any other typical college student. This cannot be said of elementary school teachers and the candidates for teacher education in elementary schools.

    Having just completed a M.A.T. in Elementary Education after having received a BA in Political Science/History with a minor in Secondary Education, I can say that Elementary Education majors are, overall, below average in their understanding of pretty much anything that is discussed or studied on college campuses. Nor do students in elementary education have to complete the amount of "regular college coursework" that other students must complete. Most of the classes these students have to take are education related or freshman and sophomore level gen ed stuff – like Astronomy for non science majors. Easy schmeezy stuff. Show up and get a B+.

    And I do think that there is a huge correlation between our students' lack of preparation for college and the lack of basic skills and education children are receiving in elementary school. Elementary schools aren't even having children learn multiplication tables anymore for goodness sake nor do teachers teach children how to write a paragraph in many schools – children learn the writing process – never any of the mechanics. And then we wonder why Johnny can't write a coherent essay? Johnny never learned how to write a coherent paragraph (all in the name of not stifling poor Johnny's creativity).

    The problem in education lies, at its heart, in elementary education. I believe that the problem stems from a lack of intellectual rigor in Elementary Education college coursework. We have teachers who are being sold on curricula and teaching models who are easily swayed by the weakest of arguments. What a nightmare.

    The results of this are catastrophic and obvious.

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