The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
No bubble is so iridescent or floats longer than that blown by the successful teacher... ...Sir William Osler (Oct. 4, 1911).

Commentary of the Day - November 2, 1999:

Teacher education:

The American Council on Education recently released a study calling upon college and university presidents to move teacher education from the periphery of academia to its center.  The study entitled To Touch the Future, Transforming the Way Teachers are Taught is presented as an "action agenda for college and university presidents".  The report includes both important findings and recommendations.  Among the findings, which are supported by significant research, are:

  1. The success of the student depends most of all on the quality of the teacher.
  2. The essential competencies of an effective teacher are command of subject, preparation in effective pedagogical practice, and high overall academic performance.
  3. Strong and effective teacher education programs share common characteristics.
  4. The academic capacity of graduates who enter teaching is comparable to that of college graduates overall for prospective secondary school teachers, but below average for prospective elementary school teachers.
  5. Teachers are inadequately prepared to understand and apply technology to teaching.
  6. Current mechanisms of academic quality control... ...are inadequate to ensure that only fully qualified teachers enter the profession.
  7. There is an opportunity to transform the quality of teachers in American schools with the hiring of at least 2.5 million teachers in the next decade.
  8. Special effort and further incentives will be needed to address shortages in high poverty schools, in special needs programs, in the sciences, and among minority teachers.
  9. Demand for new teachers can be reduced significantly by reducing teacher attrition.
  10. The professional environment in which teachers work is inadequate to attract and retain enough high quality individuals to meet the demand.

(emphasis added).  The report goes on to present 10 action agenda items for the presidents to follow.

The Irascible Professor certainly would not disagree with the findings listed above.  He, however, is not sure that university presidents and other high administrators have the courage to make the changes necessary to improve substantially the quality of teachers produced by America's higher education system.  The California State University system produces more credentialled teachers perhaps than any other system of higher education.  More than 60% of the teachers in California public schools have received their higher education on the campuses of this system.  Currently, the CSU system is led by a Chancellor who, in the opinion of the Irascible Professor, is far more interested in the number of teachers that the system produces than in the quality of the teachers produced.

A major part of the quality problem in the IP's view can be traced to teacher education programs with weak academic standards, particularly those that train and educate elementary school teachers.  Many years ago the State of California passed a law that eliminated the "education" major at the undergraduate level.  This was done in an attempt to ensure that prospective elementary school teachers would have to complete a genuine academic major as a prerequisite to a teaching credential.

The initial response to the elimination of the "education major" within the CSU system was not to encourage potential teachers to complete a major in English, history, mathematics, science or some other discipline that might provide subject matter competence.  Instead, special majors were devised, which essentially served as avatars for the old education major.  Naturally, these special majors could not have come into existence without the collusion of administrators at the highest levels.  Here at Krispy Kreme U the first incarnation of a special major for elementary school teachers was our Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program.  For several years it was viewed by students as the path of least resistance to a college degree.  However, contrary to the tendency of weak programs to become weaker, this particular program actually was strengthened as time went on.  Today, students in the Elementary Education Plan of the Liberal Studies major receive a solid education in English, history, and philosophy.  In the IP's view, the program is still weak in mathematics and even weaker in the sciences.  (The weakness of the program in the sciences is mainly the result of too much emphasis on the philosophy of the sciences and not enough on the substance of the sciences.)  However, all in all, it probably is not a bad basic education for an elementary school teacher.

The problem, however, is that once the Liberal Studies program was strengthened the number of prospective elementary school teachers enrolling in it dropped precipitously.  Where did they go?  Well the folks in our School of Human Development and Community Service (we don't call it a School of Education here at Krispy Kreme U) managed to transform their Child Development major (now the Child and Adolescent Studies major) into a new avatar for the old education degree.  The requirements of this major are significantly weaker than the Liberal Studies major in core academic areas such as English, history, and mathematics.  The science component is somewhat stronger, but this does not compensate for the deficiencies elsewhere in the program.  Additionally, the student enrolled in this major must take 21 semester units of Child and Adolescent Studies courses, which were really designed for a different purpose; namely, the preparation of people intending to be practitioners rather than teachers.  This is not to say that one or two courses in child development wouldn't be appropriate for an elementary school teacher, but that the heavy concentration in this area precludes the student from taking the additional English and mathematics courses that would provide subject matter competency for an elementary school teacher.

The Irascible Professor certainly understands that being a good elementary school teacher requires a combination of personality traits, pedagogical skills, and knowledge of the basic subjects.  However, processing large numbers of students through programs that do not require students to achieve basic academic competence, only makes the problem worse not better.  Can we really find college and university presidents who are willing to tell their faculties that some majors are not appropriate for most prospective elementary school teachers?

The IP will have more to say about the ACE report in subsequent commentaries.


The Irascible Professor invites your comments.
©1999 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.