Survey: Education Teachers Out of Touch with Real World

Published December 1, 1997

Teacher education programs often fail to prepare teachers for the challenges of teaching in the real world, say two out of three education professors recently surveyed by Public Agenda, the non-partisan New York-based research group.

The reason is not difficult to find. Those same professors hold views of education that are fundamentally “out of sync” with those of school teachers, students, and the general public. While the top priorities of ordinary Americans are discipline, basic skills, and good behavior in the classroom, those who teach teachers put such priorities at the bottom of their own lists.

As the search continues for the culprits responsible for America’s educational decline, increasing attention has been directed at the 34,000 professors of education in America’s colleges and universities. These educators shape the priorities, goals, and expectations of the nation’s 2.7 million school teachers who, in turn, teach the nation’s 52.2 million school children. Public Agenda’s recent report, the first comprehensive survey of the views of education professors, is called, appropriately, “Different Drummers: How Teachers of Teachers View Public Education.”

“The disconnect between what the professors want and what most parents, teachers, business leaders and students say they need is often staggering,” comments Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of Public Agenda. “Their prescriptions for the public schools may appear to many Americans to be a type of rarified blindness given the public’s concern about school safety and discipline, and whether high school graduates have even basic skills,” she added.

For example, when asked to identify what was “absolutely essential” to impart to prospective teachers, only 12 percent of the education professors said “Expecting students to be neat, on time, and polite”; just 19 percent said “Stressing correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation”; and only 37 percent said “Maintaining discipline and order in the classroom.” Only one-third (33 percent) consider competition for rewards such as honor rolls a valuable incentive to foster learning, while 64 percent think schools should avoid competition.

Nearly eight in ten educators believe that the general public’s approach to learning is “outmoded and mistaken.” Instead, education professors overwhelmingly consider it “absolutely essential” to convey to prospective teachers the importance of lifelong learning (84 percent), teaching students to be active learners (82 percent), and having high expectations of all their students (72 percent).

How, then, do the teachers of teachers think that classroom teachers should respond to disruptive behavior? Six in ten (61 percent) believe that when a public school teacher faces a disruptive class, it probably means that the teacher has failed to make the lessons engaging enough. And almost as many (59 percent) believe that academic sanctions–such as the threat of flunking or being held back–are not important in motivating students to learn.

Even students disagree. In a Public Agenda survey of teens earlier this year, 82 percent of students would remove disruptive individuals from class and 74 percent would not allow promotion until the required material had been learned. (See “Teen Survey Gives Private Schools Outstanding Ratings,” School Reform News, April 1997.)

The failure of education professors to place a high priority on practical classroom management is not surprising. One in six (17 percent) education professors has never taught a K-12 class, and more than half (51 percent) have not taught in a K-12 classroom for more than 15 years. Only 11 percent have taught K-12 within the past five years.

The Public Agenda survey also found that education professors view the process of learning as more important than learning specific knowledge. A majority (60 percent) frown on memorization and only 12 percent considering it important for students to know the right answers in math or history classes. Only one-third (33 percent) would require students to know the names and geographic locations of the 50 states before getting a diploma, and only 55 percent would require students to know proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation before receiving a diploma.

“To hold onto a goal that one believes is worthwhile is an important mission,” concludes Wadsworth. “But isn’t it also fair to ask the teachers of teachers to listen more empathetically to both the public’s and the teachers’ concerns?” How can we serve children well, she asks, if 100,000 graduates of education programs enter the nation’s classrooms each year “prepared for an ideal, but unarmed for the reality?”

The Public Agenda survey, which was underwritten by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, was conducted by telephone between July 9 and September 5, 1997, and is accurate to +/- 3 percent. In addition, four focus groups were conducted in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].