Education schools: a ‘contented cartel’ in ‘an industry of mediocrity’

by Grace

Even Bill Keller of the New York Times has joined the chorus of criticism aimed at America’s schools of education.

How America prepares its teachers has been a subject of dismay for many years. In 2005 Arthur Levine, then the president of Teachers College at Columbia University, shocked colleagues (and himself, he says) with a scathing report concluding that teacher preparation programs “range from inadequate to appalling.” Since then the outcry has only gotten more vociferous. This summer the National Council on Teacher Quality described teacher education as still “an industry of mediocrity.”

Universities value their highly profitable education programs that keep standards low.

… Educators, including some inside these institutions, say universities have treated education programs as “cash cows.” The schools see no incentive to change because they have plenty of applicants willing to pay full tuition, the programs are relatively cheap to run, and they are accountable to no one except accrediting agencies run by, you guessed it, education schools. It’s a contented cartel.

Reform idea:  Raise standards for acceptance to teacher colleges.

Among reformers, there is a fair amount of consensus about what it would take to fix things. The first step is to make teacher colleges much more selective. According to one respected study, only 23 percent of American teachers — and only 14 percent in high-poverty schools — come from the top third of college graduates.

Reform idea:  Education schools should teach content.

Once they are admitted, critics say, prospective teachers need more rigorous study, not just of the science and philosophy of education but of the contents, especially in math and the sciences, where America trails the best systems in Asia and Europe. A new studyby the Education Policy Center at Michigan State, drawing on data from 17 countries, concluded that while American middle school math teachers may know a lot about teaching, they often don’t know very much about math. Most of them are not required to take the courses in calculus and probability that are mandatory in the best-taught programs.

Most middle school math teachers fall at the “Botswana-level” of expertise.  Ouch.

“There’s a big range in this country,” said William Schmidt, who oversaw the study. “Some of our education programs are putting out math teachers at the level of Botswana, a developing country in Africa, and some rank up with Singapore.” Unfortunately, Schmidt reckons, the Botswana-level teacher programs produce about 60 percent of America’s future middle school math teachers.

Reform idea:  Improve student teaching.

Another missing component, reformers say, is sustained, intense classroom experience while being coached by masters of the profession. Too much student teaching is too superficial — less a serious apprenticeship than a drive-by….

It’s no surprise that education schools are resistant to change that would threaten their “cartel”.

Even if ed school administrators recognize “there is a lot of mediocrity”, they don’t look kindly on alternative programs.  Susan Fuhrman, president of Columbia Teachers College, acknowledges the problems.

… States make it far too easy to get a teaching license, she said. Bad schools are protected by politics: “There’s an ed school in every legislator’s district, and nobody wants to close ed schools.” She favors raising admission standards and figuring out ways to hold education schools accountable for their results.

But Fuhrman finds the birth of alternative teacher schools “upsetting.” “I worry about cutting that kind of preparation off from the scholarship and from emerging research” that a university offers, she said. “It can sound like I feel threatened. I don’t. But it just worries me as a trend.”

The top comments to Keller’s story seem supportive of big change.

Based on my college experience, I could have written this myself.

This is a true story. I was taking a sociology class in college, a huge state university in Oklahoma. Two young women were talking with each other. One said that she had been a business major but was failing her classes so she changed her major to elementary ed. The other young woman squealed, “Me, too! Isn’t it easy?”

Having seen top-performing teachers in action, I agree the teaching profession seems to be a two-track system.

… My unscientific sense is we see two streams dominating the teacher-preparation system: 1) passionate, skillful, highly-intelligent students who want to ensure education for their students is everything it can and should be; and 2) not-so-bright, apathetic students who failed in other fields….

Keller believes it’s time to threaten the establishment.

… one reason for the widespread mediocrity is that universities have had a cozy, lucrative monopoly. It’s about time the leaders of our education schools did feel threatened.

Related:  ‘teaching is not yet a profession’ (Cost of College)


5 Comments to “Education schools: a ‘contented cartel’ in ‘an industry of mediocrity’”

  1. While I am in total agreement on the need for higher standards in education school, I think they would be unable to suddenly raise standards because the number of graduates would plummet. The states depend on the production of large numbers of warm bodies each year to “cover classrooms”. There are many schools, not my kids thankfully, that operate in a constant state of churn, with very high attrition so they are hiring many new teachers fresh from education school each year. I have read that many charter schools in particular operate this way to keep salaries low. Thus, they need lots of graduates every year. There are likely ways to overcome this, but it isn’t going to happen very quickly. I think if the education schools quickly raised their standards, or if the states tried to raise standards on tests like the PRAXIS test, there would quickly be enormous pressure to backtrack.


  2. I agree standards cannot be raised quickly. One idea would be to get the unions and states to agree to a higher certification level, one that would require higher standards. Teachers at this higher level would command higher salaries. Education schools could choose to raise their standards to train these teachers, and experienced teachers would be eligible to upgrade their status through some meaningful assessment. The goal would be to transition all or most teachers to this higher level.

    The article mentioned the founder of Harlem Success Academy was going to establish some kind of teacher prep graduate program, so it will be interesting to see if that goes anywhere.


  3. I am not one to put down the work of teachers. My children have had many excellent ones. However, there have been a few times that I have shook my head in puzzlement when their elementary teacher told them something completely inaccurate. This seems to have happened many times with science. My undergraduate major was geology, so I tend to notice inaccurate information about the earth sciences. I agree that content needs to be focused on more. Ideally, students would have a bachelor’s degree in the content and a master’s in education. We need teachers who really know math and science. We need minimum GPAs to be at least a 3.0 in my opinion. A “C” in English 101 should be a thing of the past. Teachers should be in a group of the smartest students in the class. However, as a society we do not seem to value education enough to pay for this. Masters level, competent teachers need to be paid accordingly or we will not have enough of them. We cannot look at teaching as just a “noble profession”. Teachers need to support their families, just like everyone else. I would love to see education schools increase their standards, but as you have mentioned, it needs to be done slowly.


  4. From the stories I hear, math and science instruction in elementary and sometimes middle school seems to suffer the most as the result of the low standards in teacher preparation.

    “However, as a society we do not seem to value education enough to pay for this.”

    IMO, locally teachers are well compensated for the job they perform. However, the practice of basing compensation based mainly on years of service, regardless of performance or subject taught, leads to salaries that are out of whack with the market.


  5. Pay probably varies based on state. I do agree that compensation should not be based on just years of service. How well someone does their job should be the priority, followed by the field they are in.


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