Ed Schools ‘Out of Touch’ with Public, Say Critics

Published September 1, 2003

As debate heated up this summer over using federal aid to reform teacher preparation and licensing, a forum at the American Enterprise Institute moderated by Second Lady Lynne Cheney posed a provocative question:

Can education schools be saved?

The question brought sharply differing responses from defenders and critics of the long-dominant system, whereby collegiate schools of education and state education bureaucracies jointly control who may or may not teach in public elementary and secondary schools.

Even as participants debated whether the ed-schools can or ought to be saved, David Imig, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), asserted “education schools are busy saving themselves!”

Imig did not himself appear before the well-attended AEI conference to deliver his comments. Instead, citing a family problem, he sent an associate, Mary Dilworth, who read his remarks.

But two veteran professors of education were not sold on the idea that the nation’s 1,200 schools of education are producing teachers who can help elevate student achievement.

“As to whether the schools of education can be reformed, frankly I am not optimistic,” said John Stone of East Tennessee State University.

“In my view, they are out of touch with the public,” Stone said. “The training received by most teachers is based on teacher education’s vision of a better world, not on the public’s aims.”

Stone cited repeated fads such as the “open classroom” and self-esteem enhancement that have sprung from the education schools’ vision of student-led “best practices,” only to leave most students with severe gaps and deficiencies in their education.

Among other reforms, Stone suggested independent audits of student achievement produced by newly minted teachers, as occurs under Tennessee’s value-added assessment system, and alternative certification enabling individuals to become teachers “without having to undergo training in the untested and often fanciful practices that are too often taught in the schools of education.”

Cash Cow

George Cunningham of the University of Louisville noted wryly that the security of schools of education is not in question. That’s because their large enrollments and low overhead tend to make them “the most profitable unit in a university,” a cash cow no university president will want to terminate.

“Education schools are certainly going to survive,” said Cunningham. “The more important question is whether they will be relevant.”

There are two “distinctly different belief systems in education,” Cunningham explained. One camp believes raising student achievement is the overriding purpose of education. On that side are the general public, state legislatures, governors, and supporters of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

On the other side are the education schools, which believe a good teacher creates the environment for children to “learn” by constructing their own meaning.

Such child-centered, constructivist “learning,” as opposed to academic achievement, “is evaluated in terms of what the teacher is doing. It does not require an examination of what is happening to the students in the classroom.” The instructional methodologies designed to facilitate such “learning,” he concluded, “may not only fail to increase academic achievement; they may actually degrade it.”

Field Test Released

The day after the AEI forum, Washington newspapers broke the news of an allegation that Imig had deliberately released items from a field test of the new American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE) teacher examination.

ABCTE is planning to offer teachers the opportunity to win national certification largely based on their knowledge of the subjects they teach. Imig’s AACTE and other long-established education interests favor instead continued dominance of the certification field by the 15-year-old National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which offers national certification largely according to teachers’ use of methodologies taught in the ed-schools.

Largely because of the premature release of test questions, ABCTE had to contract for a new examination, which it planned to start administering this Fall. Imig conceded he had obtained the items and distributed them at a conference of education professionals, but he denied he was trying to sabotage the ABCTE’s alternative certification.

“Good Enough” Teachers?

In his prepared comments at the AEI forum, Imig said he agreed with President George W. Bush for condemning the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and using that as the rationale for accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind. However, Imig charged “soft bigotry” also exists in what he called the “good enough teacher philosophy that pervades this town.” That’s the attitude, Imig stated, that anyone with a bachelor’s degree and a clean criminal record who can pass some sort of assessment is “good enough” to teach K-12 children.

Lisa Graham Keegan, CEO of the Education Leaders Council, charged it is the education schools that “have focused too much on unproven pedagogy and not enough on what matters most”–teachers “knowing their subject area.” The ABCTE will enable bright persons who have not gone through education schools to become certified and to bring intellectual excellence to the classroom, she contended.

Over the summer, the House of Representatives passed by a 404-17 vote a reauthorization of Title II of the Higher Education Act. Renamed the Ready to Teach Act, the reauthorization measure provides support for charter colleges of education, alternative certification, merit pay, and tenure reform.

The National Education Association and other organizations have indicated they may fight some of those provisions in the Senate this fall.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

A Webcast of the AEI forum, “Can Education Schools Be Saved,” along with copies of speakers’ remarks, can be found online at http://www.aei.org/events/filter./recent_list.asp.