Improving Education, Part III

As I suggested in the last post, conflicts often arise between teachers and parents when it comes to the selection of curricula. The sources of these conflicts are religious, political and pedagogical. Here, I will only discuss the last type, as the first two types are impossible to solve in the public context. (I’m not touching the evolution versus intelligent design debate with a ten foot pole if I can help it; same goes for the debate over whether or not we are a Christian nation.)

(Note: I’m also putting my focus here on elementary school teachers. This is because I personally believe students’ futures are made or broken in grades K-6.)

Pedagogical disputes between teachers and parents can be traced to the way we educate our public school teachers.

The overwhelming majority of elementary school teachers are women, and they are attracted to the profession because they genuinely love kids (a good motivation). The talents of elementary teacher candidates tend to lean more towards the verbal and the creative, and these candidates tend to be generalists rather than specialists.

Most who wish to teach in our elementary schools enroll in one of our many university-level education programs, as it is pretty easy to get state certification if you have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in education. Thus, what these education schools offer our future teachers is extremely important.

Unfortunately, studies have shown that education schools in the U.S. are deficient. Their course work is irrelevant and/or lacks appropriate rigor.

Courses in child development are relatively important. Courses on methods are also relatively important. But courses on content are the most important of all, and these are the courses that are the poorest in quality. And as for the science of learning? Elementary teacher candidates are exposed to it very rarely if they are exposed to it at all.

A few years ago, the National Council on Teacher Quality looked at the reading (2006) and math (2008) programs offered to future elementary school teachers, and what they found in both cases was shocking. For example, while countless professional psychologists and neurobiologists have published studies examining how most people learn to read, education professors largely fail to share these scientists’ findings with their students. Instead, elementary teacher candidates are encouraged to come up with their own theories of reading instruction – and instead of completing challenging research papers, some education students are merely asked to write “personal reflections” on their own early reading experiences. What this kind of unscientific, self-focused diary writing has to do with learning how our brains function is anyone’s guess.

And what about math? As it turns out, in most education schools, elementary teacher candidates are simply not required to develop a deep understanding of the math concepts they will one day have to teach to our children. This is why many teachers in Prince William love Investigations: through no fault of their own, they are poorly educated in mathematics, and thus they are easily swayed by the curriculum’s attractive activities and manipulatives.

Clearly, we need to reform our system for educating teachers.

I’m tempted to suggest that we shut down our education schools and require elementary teacher candidates to complete a solid core curriculum through their university’s college of arts and sciences (after which they can take courses in the particulars of child development, learning, and methods of instruction), but as that is probably not feasible at this point, here’s what we should do:

Before admitting elementary teacher candidates into an education program, require them to demonstrate math proficiency up to Algebra II and reading proficiency up to university level.

A lot of education schools use the Praxis I as an admissions test, but the Praxis I is pretty much written on an eighth grade level. That is not sufficient. We want to attract top students!

Offer two basic concentrations to elementary teacher candidates (at least): math/science and humanities. Don’t ask teacher candidates to learn how to teach both.

Once again, I turn to Lillie B. Haynes for an example. When I was in fifth grade, I didn’t have just one teacher. I had one teacher who covered the language arts, spelling, and handwriting for the whole grade, one teacher who covered the math and social studies for the whole grade, and one teacher who handled the science for the whole grade. This was a clever arrangement because it allowed the fifth grade teachers to teach according to their strengths.

In reality, the Renaissance man or woman is a rare bird. We all have those subjects at which we excel and those subjects with which we struggle. We should let our elementary teacher candidates choose which subject interests them more. Then, at the school level, we should allow teachers to move from room to room teaching their specialty subjects to every child in their assigned grade. We already do this for art, music, and special education in most schools, so this model isn’t exactly unprecedented.

Require all teacher candidates to take courses offered by the psychology department on the science of learning and cognition.

Teachers need to know how the brain works in order to be effective. In addition, wherever possible, all methods courses offered by the education department should be based on the hard science.

Require all teacher candidates to take a rigorous core curriculum in their area of concentration.

Those in the humanities concentration should take university level courses in history, geography and literature in addition to courses on teaching these subjects. Those in the math/science concentration should take university level courses in science and mathematics. All content courses in the education department should focus on developing deep conceptual understanding. For example, it is not enough for our math/science concentrators to know how to multiply. They also have to know why multiplication works.

Require an exit test and a minimum GPA for certification.

Again, this will bring us the top candidates rather than the dregs.

If we can implement the reforms I outlined above, we can get better teachers. If we then arm these well-trained teachers with solid, content-rich curricula, we can begin to improve the quality of instruction at the school level.

(Coming up in parts IV and V: enabling parental choice and what we should do about the one big barrier to education reform.)

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2 thoughts on “Improving Education, Part III

  1. Small problem.

    As you note, the majority of teachers for elementary grades are women and most of them don't specialize in math. If everyone tries to specialize in what they teach…we're going to have approximately 47 million art, music, literature, history and writing teachers and about 11 math teachers for the whole nation. LOL

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  2. True. That is a problem. As a matter of fact, I know that the public schools are already struggling with math and science teacher shortages.

    Clearly, we need to improve our alternative certification processes so we can get more teachers like Mr. Willis into our classrooms. Maybe that will turn into a Part VI. (This series just keeps getting longer and longer, aieee!)

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