Raise Standards for Teachers and Free Them to Teach

Published July 4, 2013

Criticizing teachers is like criticizing policemen or mothers, but romanticizing the U.S. education system blinds us to the harm it can do to children.

Now, a new report has set off controversy by putting substance behind what researchers have known for decades: U.S. teacher preparation is “an industry of mediocrity,” the National Council on Teacher Quality complains.

Like any profession, teaching must attract quality applicants and train them well if the job is to be done effectively. In the United States, we do neither. That’s a big problem because teachers are the single most important element of a school that affects how well children can learn. Bad teachers damage our civic culture, economy and national happiness.

Unfortunately, the average U.S. teacher was a mediocre achiever in school. Students who intend to major in education have below-average SAT scores, which correspond to a below-proficient ranking on state grade-by-grade tests.

Teaching coursework in college is among the least challenging, and education majors require more remedial classes than their counterparts in humanities and social sciences. Despite these deficiencies, education majors receive the highest grades of all college students, according to research by University of Missouri economics professor Cory Koedel. Habitual easy A’s for education majors accompany young teachers into their classrooms, perpetuating a culture of low standards throughout education, Koedel says.

Asking a teacher to push children to or above the level the teacher has achieved herself is like asking a dolphin to fly. The paucity of academic-minded people in education shortchanges children.

A big reason teaching no longer attracts brainy folks is that such people, especially women, can get more satisfying jobs elsewhere. The teaching profession offers little career advancement and few rewards for excellent results, and it typically eliminates pension earnings and pay raises if a teacher leaves a given district.

Such a highly constricted profession offers little to smart people who seek freedom to achieve and rewards for doing so. Instead, it attracts those who want a conveyor belt to an early retirement with pay and benefits that average 50 percent higher than their abilities would earn them elsewhere, according to research by Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine.

Vivacious learners also dislike the mindless drivel forced onto prospective teachers. Most teacher preparation prioritizes progressive learning methods and ideology rather than the content teachers must impart to children. Teachers who have pursued content-specific majors or previous careers have stronger academic records than those who undergo traditional preparation.

A review of the available research on teacher certification has decisively shown it does not result in better teachers. Perhaps this is because these programs emphasize education and social theories, which research has demonstrated do not improve student learning.

What’s more, dominant education theories pander to students who avoid challenging work, by teaching them what children really need is not knowledge but “critical thinking skills” and “real-world learning.” Yet research and common sense tell us one cannot think critically with nothing to think about, and thus “real-world learning” is often a mask for endless craft projects and mindless repetition rather than the hard work and knowledge acquisition real learning demands.

The U.S. teaching profession harms children by assigning them academically ill-equipped teachers. It harms teachers by instructing them in grandiose ideas about ending “class privilege” rather than how to delightfully convey fractions or grammar to all children.

It’s time to eliminate certification mandates that only perpetuate a monopoly of failed ideology on future generations, and to allow schools to restructure pay and workplace conditions to attract the best and brightest once again. The nation’s children deserve it, and our economy needs it.

[First Published at the Washington Examiner]