Tuesday, May 18, 2004

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Beware the ed school mafia

When I was in grad school at Stanford, there was an largely unspoken consensus that the education school was the weakest of the grad school programs in the university. They had the flimsiest pedagogy and the most "flexible" curriculum (in that pretty much any course on campus could somehow apply towards their degree). The fact that this program was training America's next generation of teachers troubled me a little back then, but now I share Alan Greenspan's fervor in boosting education in the United States.

Which is why it's so disappointing to hear that any scholar who questions the rigor of education school curricula in this country runs into difficulties. Eduwonk posts the following tale:

[David] Steiner, a Boston University education professor, is the author of a controversial chapter in the new book, "A Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom: Appraising Old Answers and New Ideas" published by Harvard Education Press.... Steiner's chapter looks at the course of study in elite education programs in the United States. Specifically he and a colleague analyze syllabi from 16 teacher preparation programs (14 top tier and two comparison schools) as measured against a framework of what they consider to be a rigorous and high quality program.

The results are not encouraging. They found a pervasive ideological slant and a lack of rigor. They're certainly not the first to raise these issues but they are among the first to try to systematically analyze them because of the difficulty of compiling data on a varied set of courses and program requirements. Steiner's data is less complete than he'd like. Steiner acknowledges the shortcomings and invites others to review the data (for reasons of confidentiality he cannot publicly disclose the specific courses he analyzed) and replicate and expand his work.

Steiner first presented his work at a 2003 conference in Washington then subsequently revised it based on feedback at the conference for publication. Yet before the book even hit the shelves he found himself at the receiving end of a nasty whispering campaign. Rather than falsify his findings, or even better just put syllabi on the web to facilitate easier analysis by others, Steiner has been derided, often in personal terms, and almost never in print with a name attached to it. But mention his work at a conference and you'll get an earful, not about the ins and outs of the work but instead just claims about what garbage it is and what a hack Steiner allegedly is.

Education Week has further details (registration required):

In examining the outlines for 45 "education foundations" courses in 18 programs, the researchers found that no course offered an introduction to the four central areas that they say ideally would make up the course: the philosophy, history, and psychology of education, along with public-policy debates in the field.

In general, philosophy, history, and policy got short shrift in teacher-preparation courses, the paper said. In seven schools, students were required to study only psychology and multiculturalism. Psychology showed up in all but three programs, and cultural diversity as a course was required in all but three education schools....

Courses in methods for teaching mathematics, the researchers wrote, showed the strong influence of standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics: All but five of the 42 outlines studied made explicit reference to them. The investigators also found evidence that three-quarters of the schools were taking state math standards into account to various degrees. They applauded both those directions.

On the other hand, just one course outline referred to the research stemming from the Third International Math and Science Study, which has found that in comparison with math teachers in other countries, American math teachers cover material that is less demanding, with less attention to fundamental concepts....

Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University who has led the charge for tighter regulation and higher standards for teaching, blasted the paper as showing "very poor scholarship."

Course outlines are inadequate to assess what is actually taught, she said, calling the standards Mr. Steiner used to evaluate each of the four types of courses either personal or politically motivated.

"We need systematic studies," she complained, "rather than diatribes that come at the problems ideologically."

David F. Labaree, an education professor at Stanford and author of the forthcoming book The Trouble With Ed Schools, agreed that course outlines are not a good guide to what is actually taught. They are "more an ideological portrait of a course than actual substance," he said.

Mr. Steiner was right in portraying many education schools as having "a strong ideological consensus around progressive, constructivist approaches to education," Mr. Labaree said. (emphases added).

Maybe they do things differently in ed schools, but for my classes, course syllabi are a pretty decent indicator for course content.

It's hard to ascertain the extent of any negative feedback Steiner is experiencing beyond Eduwonk's post. That said, if Steiner is really the subject of a whispering campaign, but if he is, it's emblematic of the difficulties the U.S. will face in education reform.

[C'mon, this contretemps just a stalking horse for standard left-right debates about education, right?--ed. Steiner's chapter is part of a book co-edited by scholars at the American Enterprise Institute and the Progressive Policy Institute. I'd call that pretty bipartisan. Plus, as Eduwonk observes, "Steiner's not a Lynne Cheney type or an ideologue, he's a lefty!']

posted by Dan on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM


Dan's postscript about David Steiner's ideology is interesting but irrelevant. The National Education Association decides who is a liberal (or "progressive") on education issues and who is driven by right-wing ideology. Steiner's work does not appear to conform to NEA's position on these issues, and this by definition makes him a right-wing ideologue. Also a hack who writes garbage.

To be a true progressive Steiner needs to display Obedience, like John Kerry.

posted by: Zathras on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

The single biggest problem with Secondary school teachers is that they don't necessarily know the subject that they're teaching. History, Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics etc. are all taught by Education majors, not History majors or Physics majors etc.

To effectively teach anything you need to have at least a passing familiarity with the subject matter two or three level above the course you're teaching. Without that perspective, how do you know what to emphasize and what to gloss over?

It's absurd that most math teachers in America have no awareness of any mathematical discovery of the last century.

posted by: uh_clem on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

Agreed. But, of course, if we wanted our teachers to be well-educated enough to have degrees in both education and the field they teach, they'd need better pay...

posted by: EH on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

"But, of course, if we wanted our teachers to be well-educated enough to have degrees in both education and the field they teach, they'd need better pay..."

Many of us believe that one of these degrees (the one in education) could be dispensed with, inasumuch as there is little content there.

And please defend your assertion that teachers are (in general) underpaid. Compared to what professions, requiring what skill levels and what risks?

I am curious as to what proportion of the GDP you think it would be appropriate to devote to education. One often hears cries of "more," but rarely is there a statement of how much would be enough.

posted by: David Foster on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

EH never said that teachers are currently underpaid. He/she simply said that if we raise the requirements for teachers, we will have to pay them more. That's pretty straightforward economics. I agree that the "teachers are underpaid" meme is often repeated and rarely questioned, but I don't think that's what EH was saying.

posted by: Xavier on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

Maybe they do things differently in ed schools, but for my classes, course syllabi are a pretty decent indicator for course content.

It wasn't in mine, and I went to a major engineering school. Course syllabi (at least, the first version of them) reflected what the instructor would like to teach -- but didn't always manage to get to.

pretty much any course on campus could somehow apply towards their degree

Seems to me that would be OK if that meant that as a result, your education certificate allowed you to only teach that subject (at least when it comes to high school level education).

posted by: Keith Tyler on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

I have to say, though, that unless Congress is really willing to pay for public education (I mean really willing to pay, not just claim to be willing to pay, and then cut), it's not realistic to expect elementary teachers to have education certificates for (or even college-level knowledge of) all the subjects they teach, because one teacher often has to convery many diverse subjects, and not in anything above a fairly light level (e.g. algebra, the three branches of government, columbus sailed the ocean blue, etc.), either.

posted by: Keith Tyler on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

If you wanted people with physics and math degrees to teach physics and math, of course you'd have to raise teacher salaries. Otherwise you'd get even worse adverse selection than there already is. People who major in things like physics and math have lots of far more lucrative career options. Rather than making $30k teaching high school, math majors could make $70k making financial models, and physics majors could make similar pay in engineering fields.

Now for subjects like English, it's a whole other story.... :P

posted by: Adam on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

With regard to what actually goes on in education classes, the scariest book I ever read was Rita Kramer's Ed School Follies. If you can find a used copy, it's better horror reading than most Stephen King. She actually visited the classes given at schools ranging from the elite (Columbia) to typical state schools and so on.

My mother got her masters in education, and not all her classes were complete crap (she even had a couple of professors who insisted on critical thinking about faddish concepts), but the overall picture was not pretty. From then until the period of Kramer's book, which is at leastt a decade old, things seemed to have deteriorated. Perhaps we need a current update from another intrepid writer.

posted by: steve on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

Here we go again. How many times have I heard this stuff? Somebody intelligently blasts the schools of education and is inevitably blasted as some sort of reactionary zealot. I got news for you: the liberals have complete control of these institutions---and nothing is likely to change anytime in the near future. Why am I so pessimistic? The Democrat Party sluts for the support of the teachers’ unions. A Democrat politician will normally whore out their own mother to satisfy these mediocrities. Well, won’t the Republicans be glad to make this a major issue? Not in the least. Their children usually do not attend the schools employing inept teachers. It’s no sweat off their brow. Thus, the Republicans will almost certainly let the Democrats have their way on the educational issues in order to win other battles.

posted by: David Thomson on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

It is interesting to see how little the above commenters know about the state of licensure of teachers in most states. (And soon, nationwide.)

I'm a history teacher (with a BA History, Colorado) who concurrently completed certification in education (2000.) All of the members of my department have degrees in their fields, although many tend to get graduate degrees in Ed. In my state, one has needed a content-area degree plus an Ed diploma to be certified in all schools for well over a decade; one can no longer earn a BS in Ed here.

The oft-derided No Child Left Behind Act requires secondary teachers to be degreed in their area of content or at least have 24 sem. hours in the subject before they can be classified as a "Highly Qualified Teacher." If one is not so qualified, their students' parents will receive a letter in the mail stating so. Accreditation of schools is now demanding very high accountability of content-area degrees, at least as much as an NGO can.

All of that said, I can certainly see how multiculturalism and ed psych are calls for concern-they were some of the most academically stagnant classes I've ever taken-albeit under somewhat tweaked names.

In fairness, one needs to understand that there are certainly problems with what amounts to teaching a pseudoscientific-touchy-feely field. A lot of it can't be taught--at least not as well as Ed schools think. But don't be fooled into thinking that the couple of academically unimpressive teachers you've likely had or met throughout the years exemplify us all.

posted by: Jeff on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

History, Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics etc. are all taught by Education majors, not History majors or Physics majors etc.

Occasionally true but mostly not true. See what Jeff said.

posted by: alkali on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

I’m going to make it real easy for you. Do you really want to improve public education? If so, you should rarely, if ever, vote for a Democrat candidate. This party is the enemy of quality education. Only the Republicans (when they give a fat damn) encourage competition and non-egalitarian solutions.

posted by: David Thomson on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

I have a friend who teaches at a private liberal arts college. I said, "You don't have a college of education, nor a school of education, nor a department of education. Who the heck do you make fun of?" He said, "The foreign languages profs."

posted by: JorgXMcKie on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

Xavier is right about what I meant, although David is kind of right as far as my tone. I, however, have never heard or had a 'teachers are underpaid' debate that hasn't largely revolved around the idea of getting more qualified people into the field. I guess there are people out there saying teachers deserve higher salaries 'just because,' but I always talk about it in terms of exactly this issue - getting people who know what they're talking about.

posted by: EH on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

California also requires secondary teachers to major in the field they're planning to teach; primary teachers, who teach many subjects, major in "liberal studies," which is a catch-all for a variety of courses. (It's not what you're thinking.) The problem is that the system doesn't produce enough math, physics or chemistry teachers, so schools use waivers to hire teachers who don't qualify.

Schools that are tough places to teach lose qualified teachers to easier schools, raising the chances that a low-income student will be taught math and science by a teacher who doesn't know the subject very well.

posted by: Joanne Jacobs on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

I suppose I am one of those who did it backwards...BS (how appropriate) in Secondary Social Studies (Univ. of Colorado) and then a Master in History (Univ. of Colorado)

speaking as a parent one of the major problems is that you have, thanks to building and/or district administrators who make these decisions, some teachers teaching out of their content field...a math major teaching social studies???

if there were an ideological bend to what history teachers teach...then it was lost on Jeff...a former student, current colleague, and we rarely agree politically...guess I must have slipped up and tried to teach him to think for himself...damn...what was I doing? must be seen as a failure for the far left...now I suppose they will try and drum me out of the party!

posted by: Anton on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

As a real lefty liberal type, I often find myself surprisingly in tune with curmudgeons like George Will and other conservatives when it comes to educational issues. And I must point out a real resource for all of you if you are interested in finding out all that's wrong with the degree in education: The recently deceased Richard Miller, the Underground Grammarian, whose entire works spanning decades from the 70s to the 90s are online at sourcetext. His work is also compiled into 4 books. I don't think liberals attacking conservatives or conservatives attacking liberals here is going to solve anything. I think there is broad consensus within our (otherwise bitterly divided) country on the point of education and most of us feel like the Grammarian did -- that there are lots of problems, teachers alone are not to blame, sloppy thinking and "affective" education are problems, and standardized (multiple choice) testing alone is not going to solve problems and may even exacerbate them.

posted by: Anna in Cairo on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

I'm not sure what Dan means by flimsy pedagogy, nor do I understand why a flexible curriculum is problematic. Most folks tend to skip over the questions that should be addressed when thinking about education: What is Education? Why is education important? What does it mean for someone to become educated?

Most folks in and out of education assume that the role of schooling should be to prepare students for the workplace. There is also the more condescending position of creating well-rounded citizens. Each of these belies the fundamental desire of most folks for comfort and happiness. Because of this, I argue that contrary to the cries of the educational system being a bastion of liberals, it is in fact very conservative in that it aims to perpetuate a capitalist consumer society. Of course, in the narrow conception that we tend to discuss liberal-conservative, there tends to be a whole lot more liberals that teach than conservatives. I suppose this is problematic in the same way that the social sciences are heavily dominated by conservatives - so be it.

Having been through most of a MAT program, I can attest to what a depressing waste of time it is, as well as not boding well for the folks these eventual teachers teach. Been exposed to students and stories of students from several certification programs in the Twin Cities, as well as the now defunct MAT program at U of C, I can boldly claim that while folks tend to have do-gooder/liberal agendas going in, almost none of them are anything more than the knee-jerk variety. As above, they are more aligned to the politics of conservatives than liberals in that they are largely apolitical. I see this as problematic because they are not critical thinkers. This is not to say that I prefer higher standards for teachers or students, just that the system is rotten as is, and no reform will make it better.

Back to Dan's complaints/observations of ed school and the aims of education. If we consider education to mean improving unique individuals with distinct interests and abilities then how most folks discuss education is useless. This applies to Dan's complaint that curriculum is flexible. If a student is interested in something (the studies say, for all you social science quantoids) they are more likely to retain it and meaningfully understand and incorporate it for more complex understandings. If what we want is educators to master some content, it seems wise that they should master content they are interested in instead of slogging through some required tripe that some all-wise education committee, or group of politicians deems appropriate.

Dan's interest in Buffy is clearly inappropriate and misguided - a waste of time. Anyone with an iota of intelligence understands this. He should not be allowed the opportunity to indulge in this interest. Or so the analogy goes when considering schooling. The problem is that society is set up in a way that spending time (learning) about something that interests you is inappropriate. This does not mean that students in school would all start studying pop culture (not that I think this would be a problem), if there were teachers that were good (able to incite interest in the material they have mastered) students would become excited to learn. The system is broken - abolish compulsory education (but don't stick 'em in prison).

posted by: jon.k on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

Course outlines are inadequate to assess what is actually taught... course outlines are not a good guide to what is actually taught.

And these are the people who are supposed to be teaching the next generation of teachers how to teach.

Maybe they should teach the teachers to make relevant course outlines...

posted by: Michael Levy on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

Though the topic is high school education (or rather, education of high school educators) I'm surprised no one has brought up "Tenured Radicals" by Kimball or similar treatises by Bloom, et al, on the radicalized, politicized, and wussified state of education today ...

Windschuttle ("The Killing of History") details the nonsense professors get feted for today ... education in the humanities are rotting from the top.

posted by: Cliff Soon on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

Oops - that should be "education in the humanities IS rotting from the top."

In Malaysia, high school teachers were "specialists" in certain subjects; math teachers really knew math, chemistry teachers really knew chemistry. You wouldn't find a history teacher trying to teach us calculus. Is this kind of standard really so hard to implement?

posted by: Cliff Soon on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

I was a graduate of Yale's Teacher Prep program in 1995. It is a little bit of a different bird, in that it can only be a second major, and your primary major must be a subject taught in secondary schools. It was very small - 25 students in my class. It was quite rigorous - an entire second courseload of classes on top of your primary major. Student teaching was done senior year, 10 weeks of 5 days a week. From what I've read, it seems much more rigorous than most education programs. YET - I spent four years as a high school teacher, and I don't think I ever used a single thing that I learned in that program, apart from the student teaching. I think that the substantive knowledge is much more important than the pedagogy taught in most education programs. We learned a lot of the stuff recommended above - the history, philosophy, and theory of education - and that turned out to be useless when standing in front of a class of 15-year-olds. What's my point? More substance, less theory, and smarter people are what is required to improve education programs. Unfortunately, the latter simply is not going to happen until teacher's salaries go up. I was going broke after four years teaching, and turned to the dark side of the force - law school.

posted by: brett on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

I dont have to much experience teaching, but I've been in school long enough to know syllabi completely depend on whose writing them. In med school, the syllabi are complete, and sum up exactly what you're going to learn. In Undergrad, it completely depended on the professor. Some CS professors would just list vague topics and you'd have no idea how in depth those topics would be discussed. You might end up with a general idea of whats going on or you might learn how to derive the stuff from first principles. Same thing in philosophy classes.

If you read what Dr. Darling-Hammond said, she seems to be criticizing the method more so than the conclusions. I'd probably agree that from my experiences with highschool teachers and assiting teachers on the side, that teachers probably are undertrained and something ought to be done about it. However, at the same time if you are going to use unreliable methods to get a first approximation at the scope of the problem, you better word your conclusions carefully and politely otherwise people are going to ignroe it. The exact same thing would happen in medicine or biology too. IF you did a preliminary study that seemed to contradict conventional wisdom -- and then tacked on firey conclusions, people would outright ignore it. On the other hand, if you politely state, further study is necessary, etc. etc. blah blah blah, more people will jump up on the bandwagon and study the problems more systematically and as evidence amasses that conventional wisdom is wrong -- then it will be dumped. But you can't start screaming using preliminary, shaky, first approx methods. Cause the majority of the time, conventional wisdom is right and you are wrong (thats why its conventional wisdom-- well usually).

posted by: Jor on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

The thread on the syllabus should be less-/ir-relevant to this conversation, but because so many folks have picked up on it and abused it, I will take a second to address the issue.

One of the most influential curricularists of the 20th c. was Ralph Tyler, who spent many years at U of C. In the early 40s, he wrote a legendary syllabus for a curriculum course at U of C, it made the rounds to curricularists and educators throughout the US, and by the late 40s it was published as 'Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction', the work of this study is known as "The Tyler Rationale". Almost 30 years later Tyler's reflections on his canonical text caused him to draw out an overlooked aspect, this was that the active role of the student ought to be given greater consideration. The obvious and overlooked fact is that learning is an active and not a passive endeavor.

Folks who argue that a syllabus should be followed are not taking into account the students that they will interact with and make adjustments for. To claim that you do not make adjustments for students is to devalue your presence in the classroom. This is a frieghtening trend in education these days with scripted lessons that are merely delivered by the classroom administrators. When Dan says his syllabus is "a pretty decent indicator for course content" I assume this means the syllabus is not robotically adhered to. Whether or not the folks from the 'Education Week' interview are more aligned with Dan's take, or are clearly standing up for useless syllibi, I do not know. But my hunch is that most folks in education are in tune with the need for the classroom be influenced by the interests and abilities of students.

posted by: jon.k on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

I am a math teacher who must get his masters within 5 years, or I can't teach here after 5 years. I just want to take math, statistics and physics classes, but I have to take "Reading and writing across the curriculum" But the math ed programs are pushing alot of computer courses so at least they're getting their act together. This summer I get to take Modern Algebra.

I make $40 an hour and can make $75 for tutoring ($100 tutoring for AP) Teacher are underpaid because we only work 180 days a year, 3 hours a day. Granted we have to mark alot of papers and stuff, but the fact is that we are educating children.

The irony on this site is that for all your prattle about the PC liberal university system, everyone here decided to trot out their favorite academic book from the last 100 years. We've all read Dewey. What do you want for your children.

posted by: ken on 05.18.04 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

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