Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Obama Sort of Stands Up To Teachers
And: The Disaster of Education Majors (Or: To Improve Education, Eliminate Ed Schools)

Ruth Marcus on Obama's not-completely-wimpy stand on education, in today's Post.

Although I started off indifferent to Obama, the guy is starting to impress me. Taking even these tentative steps to stand up to primary and secondary school teachers on the merit pay issue is yet another good thing.

Now, merit pay is a vexed issue, and I'm not necessarily a big fan...but it's a not-unreasonable partial solution to the train wreck of public education in this country.

A better solution would be to eliminate schools of education and force teachers to actually specialize in a major. Currently you can't even teach primary or secondary school in most states unless you have an education degree. But education majors (the major program itself, not the individual students) are--as virtually anyone at a university outside the ed school will tell you--a joke.

I hope I don't have to make it clear that I had some great teachers, and I really respect anyone who can put up with the bullshit associated with becoming a really good primary or secondary school teacher. So that's not what this is about.

I started off as an education major myself (before I knew there was such a thing as graduate school), but the major was too lame and I, like so many others, quit. You spent all your time taking ridiculous classes on teaching (people would call them, e.g., "Intro To Bulletin Boards" or "Overhead Projector 101") and there was virtually no time left over to, ya know, learn anything.

As it stands now, go to virtually any university in the country. Look at the grades broken down by major. You'll find that education majors have one of the highest GPAs. Ed schools like to say that this is because they get the best students in the university, or because the screening process for their majors is so rigorous. But it isn't true. Ed majors are among the weakest in any university. If you doubt this, go check out LSAT and GRE scores broken down by major. Ed majors are always near the very bottom of the list. Weak students plus a weak, frivolous program plus astronomically high grades...well, these things are not going to generate top-notch teachers.

How are we going to solve the education problem in this country? My solution is to eliminate the education major and schools of education. History teachers should be history majors, math teachers should be math majors. Call me crazy. Maybe there's a place for some kind of teaching major for really young kids...but by the time they hit junior high what they really need is someone who knows the subject matter.


Blogger The Mystic said...

In Virginia, there are actually "alternative routes" to teaching licensure. I looked into doing that, myself, because I wanted to be a teacher. Unfortunately, these alternative routes, require you to, as you said, major in what you want to teach. Unfortunately, being a Philosophy and Religion double major, there is no place for me in the public school system (very sadly enough - one of its biggest problems) and as such, I could not teach.

However, it's only feasible that an English major could become an English teacher without the useless education degree. It's unfortunate that it's not required, as you said.

I can't agree enough with you on the uselessness of the education major. I wanted to do that too, for a while, until I saw the class list and actually met some education majors. Unbelievable. It's really unfortunate, too, because many of the education majors ARE potentially intelligent people - it's just that they are tricked into thinking they're actually learning something as education majors and it takes them until they graduate to find out they have learned nothing.

Very sad.

10:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are right that much Ed school is a depressing joke. (I had a friend who was getting his MA in Ed. One day I dropped by his house and noticed a stack of two page papers he had written for one of his classes, entitled "Who will we Teach?", "What will we Teach?", and "How will we Teach?". "What next, 'Where will we Teach?'" Yes, that was the next topic.) However, your admission that "the younger" kids might require some training to teach is a hole in your argument big enough to drive a school bus through. At the college level, where you teach, the students are expected to learn in a fashion basicly similar to the way an adult will, so it makes sense for a historian to be able to teach history. But this is less so the younger the kids get, and is absurd at the K-5 level, unless you think that anyone who knows well how to read monosylables and count M&Ms should be able to teach kindergarten. (And the kids on the short bus?) At least some adjunct training in education, as applied cognitive psychology, should be required for even high school teachers. Perhaps at the high school level, where the complexity of the subject is far in excess of the method, this could be adjunct to arts and science, but you should not kill off the subject or major.

You could make the point that education theorists tend to be the sort of batty academics who think that differential calculus is merely "rhetoric of white male hegemony", and that theoretical bias is turning out teachers who think is wrong to teach grammar and likely couldn't if they wanted to. But if blinkered theories and the production of jargon-spouting incompetents is ground for killing off departments, then the list is going to have to be a bit longer than just Education.

3:04 PM  
Blogger matthew christman said...

Merit-based pay might be a good idea, but eliminating the education major is a GREAT idea. The dumbest, most vapid kids at my college were almost all education majors. Most unnerving about them was the utter hostility to actual LEARNING that they displayed when forced to take the core cirruclum liberal arts classes. I was always stunned that people like this were going to be in charge of the education of kids.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, A, it's not exactly a hole in my argument if I say "except for primary education"... That is, since I noted that some kind of ed major may be necessary for little kids, little kids hardly constitute a problem for my position.

If you're teaching kids so small that you don't really have to have any specialized disciplinary knowledge in order to teach them, then by all means have some kind of generalized major for it. But by the time they're in fourth grade or so, what they need is knowledgeable instructors.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Ed majors aren't the WORST in my experience...that title probably goes to business majors. But we're splitting hairs by this point...

4:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, students do not need simply for their teachers to understand the subject, but how to teach it. These are - and pardon me for the obvious point - different skills.

How, for example, does one go about explaining the concept of a variable to a class full of sixth graders so that they will pick it up easily? Hell, I don't know, and neither do you. I don't know in the same way I don't know whether tiny children should be taught the names of letters first or the sounds they stand for. The mere fact that algebra is closer to my present level of knowledge than phonetic reading doesn't mean that I can do without specialized knowldege of teaching in the latter case. Moreover, if my - wholely hypothetical - child were trying to learn algebra, I would prefer that the doing the teaching be proficient in how to introduce the concept of a variable than that he have written an honors thesis on Goldbach's conjecture, since the kid is not learning Goldbach's conjecture but something everyone is tought in the sixth grade.

It seems to me that your problem is not with education existing as a subject matter in which teachers are trained, but with the fact that most Ed schools have half-assed curricula. True enough, but so do a frightening number of English departments. It's not the subject as such that is the problem. If education majors were expected to take curricula chock full of applied developmental psychology & cognitive science, public speaking, crowd control, and refreshers in the subject matter they teach (at the level they will teach it), would you have the same problem with Ed School?

5:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think all the comments above are valid, but I think Anonymous's is really apt (the one above as of this writing). Teaching is a skill that some have, and that others learn. Likewise, in other disciplines, the knowledge doesn't matter if the presentation isn't good.

Teaching awards go to those who can communicate hard stuff in a way that people can understand. The problem, as duly noted by WS, is that the rigor and expecations for mastering the communication skills (along with the requisite knowledge, regardless of the age of the students) is silly in many cases.

My best college teacher taught chemistry. I was a philosophy and english major, so the topic was required, obviously, and also intimidating (although I am not a science neophyte). The class was hard, but I learned a lot, because I was treated as someone who needed to be taught, not someone who either "got it or didn't get it."

That is the magic of teaching. So, while criticisms of the Ed. major are valid to a certain extent, I would argue that criticims (implied or otherwise) of the idea of a methodology of effective teaching are misplaced.

11:52 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I'm not saying that there shouldn't be some teaching courses--heck, I always thought that I should have had some kind of training before I was thrust into the classroom. But an entire *major* on the "subject" of teaching is overkill to say the least. Except that it's really underkill, since nobody seems to learn anything. And this is particularly pernicious given the opportunity costs--ed majors commonly end up not knowing anything b/c they had to take teaching classes instead of real classes.

A asks whether I'd be against an ed major that was rigorous. Tough question. First, I'm skeptical that there's more than one or two classes worth of stuff about teaching that can be taught in the classroom. More importantly: you still have the opportunity costs.

All the evidence we have available to us right now indicates that the current system doesn't work. On the other hand, teaching people a lot about a subject matter and leaving them to learn how to teach it on their own *does* seem to work--it works at the university level. No surprise there. Suppose your welfare hinged on teaching a good course on, say, Etruscan history. Before you teach the course, you can study either (a) teaching techniques or (b) Etruscan history, but not both, in depth. Which would you choose? Only a fool would choose (a).

8:58 AM  
Blogger Random Michelle K said...

I have to disagree with your contention that an education degree is useless. I agree that a lot of worthless information is taught, but some skills needed in a classroom are not something you learn by having a specialized degree.

First off, the ability to teach, as Anonymous mentioned earlier. You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you can't make others understand, then you are wasting your time and your student's.

Secondly, time in the classroom. You can't know how to manage a classroom without having spent time in a classroom. How do you create lesson plans? How do you manage your time? How do you keep the kids attention. These are skills that require hands on experience, and an education degree that requires classroom observation, classroom volunteering, and finally student teaching is the only way for prospective teachers to learn those skills.

Thirdly, there are some subjects you can't learn by having a degree in another field. Getting an English degree does not qualify you to teach students how to read. And reading ability--which includes not just spelling and grammar but also reading comprehension--is something that requires specialized knowledge. We complain that children can't or don't read, but we don't value those who can teach them those skills.

What would be far more useful is--with some exceptions, such as special education--to make education a co-degree. If you want a degree in education you must also get a degree in English or Biology or Chemistry or whatever. If you are going to teach, you not only need that foundation for your subject, but you also need significant time in the classroom, which, at least here(WVU), an education degree requires.

For what it's worth, most of those I know who have or are getting education degrees either double majored, or else got/are getting their education degree as a master's degree, after having gotten an undergraduate degree in another field.

But seriously, I don't think that lack of subject matter is nearly as important as an ability to teach. If you can't explain yourself in a sensible manner, then you don't belong in the classroom. If you don't have a joy of learning that you can impart to those you are teaching, then you don't belong in a classroom.

There's a reason undergrad students are unhappy about courses taught by grad students. It's not necessarily that the grad students don't know the material--it's that the grad students can't teach.

12:59 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I have to say, Michelle, I think a lot of what you said is what's harped on by education majors, but it's really a lot of nonsense.

1) "You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you can't make others understand, then you are wasting your time and your student's."

I have never met an intelligent person who couldn't explain to me a point in a coherent, rational way.

2) "You can't know how to manage a classroom without having spent time in a classroom."


"How do you create lesson plans? How do you manage your time? How do you keep the kids attention."

Given that we've all gone through school and been students, I should hope we have good ideas about how that would work. We've been students for 16-17 years by the time we graduate college. We should know how the game works. Again, intelligent people do know. I'm all for a "tips and tricks" course, but a major about stuff we mostly know already? Lame.

3) "Getting an English degree does not qualify you to teach students how to read."

Like Winston said, teaching courses for something where teaching methods are more important than subject matter - such as early childhood education -would not be bad, but again, an entire major for this is way too stupid. One class ought to do it. A half-semester class.

4) "If you can't explain yourself in a sensible manner, then you don't belong in the classroom."

If you can't explain yourself in a sensible manner, you shouldn't be a college graduate.

9:32 PM  
Blogger Random Michelle K said...

I have never met an intelligent person who couldn't explain to me a point in a coherent, rational way.

I've met lots--some of who have been teaching assistants, some of whom have been professors, some of whom have been technical support.

There are a disturbing number of people who are incapable of explaining concepts in a way that makes sense to the average person.

And I'm sorry but teaching is most definitely NOT something that anyone can do--I've learned that through experience.

I do not have an education degree, but a large part of my job involves teaching--both teaching classes on software and answering questions on how to use software and hardware. I also have to help train our graduate assistants who do the same job for some of the more basic classes.

Cake job you're thinking. Anyone can teach people who to use Word and PowerPoint. Well, you're wrong. We have had our share of graduate students who simply couldn't teach. You could see it watching them teach, and we heard it from the comments of those who took the classes. Repeatedly.

Think about tech support, because it uses the same set of skills. How many people are completely frustrated after calling tech support, because the person trying to "help" them didn't listen and didn't seem to know what they were talking about? Lots and lots. Thing is, the support person probably knew the technical information cold--they simply weren't able to impart that information in a way that made sense. They also probably weren't able to sense what the caller needed and hear what the caller was telling them and give the caller an appropriate answer. The same skill set is needed when teaching--or at least teaching when you care whether the students are learning or not.

Most people, in my experience, simply lack that sense of how the "student" is reacting and what the "student" is learning.

You ever tried to explain to a parent or grandparent how a piece of technology worked? Did they actually understand it when you were done, or did the VCR continue to blink 12:00 for the next ten years?

Most people claim that teaching is easy and a skill that anyone can do. But in my experience, those people have never tried to teach, and when asked questions, such as, "how does the new microwave work?" wave their hands vaguely at the thing, rattle of a strong of commands and then leave, with the questioner no more enlightened than they were before the explanation.

One class ought to do it. A half-semester class.

A half semester for the most important skill anyone needs to know? And we wonder why literacy and reading rates are so low in the US?

If you can't explain yourself in a sensible manner, you shouldn't be a college graduate.

You can't possibly believe that even as you say that. You're commenting on a weblog. You've seen--just as I have--posts and comments that are both incoherent and nonsensical. I don't think you'll get anyone to agree that these are all written by those who don't have a college education--or even people who don't deserve the college education they have. The ability to comprehend and understand material is not necessarily correlated with the ability to coherently explain one's self.

Here's something for you--if you work in an office, pay attention to your co-worker's. Most likely there care certain people that others go to if they have questions--anything from "how do I make double sided copies?" to "how do I navigate this new software we were given". And I bet there are also people that people avoid going to--even if they happen to be the "expert" on that subject.

It all comes down to teaching ability--some people have it, some people don't.

But I will agree that it something that can't be taught. It can eventually be picked up through lots of experience and hard work, but it's definitely not something that the average person can just wing it and succeed.

10:10 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

"You can't possibly believe that even as you say that."

Of course I believe it. Why shouldn't I?

"You're commenting on a weblog. You've seen--just as I have--posts and comments that are both incoherent and nonsensical. I don't think you'll get anyone to agree that these are all written by those who don't have a college education--or even people who don't deserve the college education they have."

Note: I didn't say people with college educations can all explain themselves coherently. Nor did I say that they do so 100% of the time. I said that if you can't, then you shouldn't be a college graduate. I don't understand how you could possibly get passing grades on papers if you can't explain your thoughts adequately. Sadly, many people do graduate college lacking this capability.

10:22 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


You're clearly right that not every college graduate, nor ever intelligent person, nor every person who understands a subject, can explain it clearly to non-experts.

In general I find myself in agreement with the Mystic, but not with that last salvo.

To cut to the chase: I agree with Michelle that teaching is hard and that you can't necessarily do it just because you're smart and you understand the material. But I'm still with the Mystic as to the sub-optimality of education majors.

Although some smart people who understand the subject can't teach, it's fairly uncommon. Usually it's not that that *can't* teach, but, rather, that they don't care and don't put any effort into it. Remember: almost NO ONE gets significantly rewarded for good teaching at the university level. It's all about the publishing. Usually if a prof's a bad teacher, then he's lazy, or doesn't care, or isn't that smart, or doesn't really understand the subject. Now, we can't solve the lazy/don't care problem here, so let's forget about it. Ignoring that: it's fairly rare for a smart person who really understands material to be unable to teach it. It happens, but it's rare. On the other hand, if you don't understand material, you absolutely cannot teach it. So the best thing for a teacher to do is understand the material.

Also, we haven't established that ed classes teach people to teach. My guess, based on years of learning to teach--and learning the hard way: you can't learn it in classes. One class *might* help, but it's not clear. You learn by doing. That could be wrong, but I doubt it.

So *maybe* there's enough useful material for a minor--I doubt it, but maybe. You don't need a class to teach you about lesson plans and organizing a class. Those are just organizational skills one learns in any other way. Biology, math, and business majors don't have classes on how to be organized.

The lameness of the education major as it stands now is part of what drives many smart people away from it...and drags down the ones who remain. It's not that there are no smart people in ed schools, it's rather that there are smart people there DESPITE the ed major, not because of it.

6:29 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I don't think that I committed to many of the things Michelle was alleging that I said..

I didn't say current college graduates are all able to, and always do, teach exquisitely.

I said that you shouldn't be a college graduate if you can't (as in, are not able without a great deal of guidance) explain a point in a coherent manner.

I think that that is something that should be a standard that all college graduates of any major should be held to.

The fact that intelligent people, on occasion, don't explain things well doesn't contradict what I said. Like Winston pointed out - it's usually out of laziness or absence of care. I have to agree with that.

Teaching isn't some mystical undefinable quality that some people magically have and others don't. It's the ability to explain and convey knowledge, and with intelligence comes a command of knowledge and language - all the tools necessary to explain a point.

Yes, yes, there are outlying cases, like autistic people who can calculate faster than computers but who have vocabularies that are very small. Again, I didn't say all, I said I hadn't met one.

I think that, as far as generalizations go, I'm going to stand by saying that if you're intelligent and you grasp the material, and, of course, you care about conveying it, you will be able to.

9:39 AM  
Blogger Random Michelle K said...

I don't disagree that there are problems with the education degree.

But one thing it gives prospective teachers--at least here anyway--is time in the classroom. Students here are required to have a certain number of volunteer hours in a classroom of their desired age range. They have to spend time observing different teachers in different schools, and they have to student teach in at least two different classrooms, usually in two different schools.

That is experience that you can't get from simply getting a Biology or English degree. It is there--in a classroom working with an actual teacher--that an ed major learns about classroom control, lesson plans, and classroom management. They learn these things by doing them with experienced teachers.

Perhaps some schools do emphasize too much teaching theory, but the classes the education grads students I deal with talk about are the ones where they learn to work with special education students. Or the reading clinic where they work after school and over the summer with children who are having difficulty learning to read or with reading comprehension.

Maybe I'm missing something, but the majority of the work the ed students talk about are credit hours that involve working with the children they want to teach when they graduate.

No matter how much you may know your subject, I don't see how you can claim to be prepared to teach if you have not spent time in an actual classroom or with actual children.

And I think that spending 2 to 4 semesters working in a "live" classroom, and working with actual children should certainly count towards a degree.

Sure, lesson plans and classroom organization are something that can be learned as the school year progresses, but a teachers inexperience doesn't just effect them--it effects the students they are working with, and if it takes a teacher a full quarter to get their act together, then that's a full quarter of those children's education that is wasted.

As far as University education, publish or perish is ridiculous. But I have seen a small but growing trend to actually keep teachers who can teach--regardless of their publications.

And Mystic, you can believe that knowing the material is enough to teach it, but in my experience that simply is not so. Knowledge of a subject is not enough to convey information and fire the imaginations of the students to get them to truly learn. Hell, typically it's not even enough to keep their attention.

Perhaps I simply went to lower quality schools, but I had teachers that were sub-optimal, and I learned little. It wasn't that they didn't know the material, it was that they didn't know how to keep the attention and interest of the students. Luckily, I also had some fantastic teachers who were inspiring and piqued my interest in subjects for which I had no interest. It is the latter ability that is both important and rare.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Ya know, I was just thinking that I had the *opposite* problem--I had lots of high school teachers that obviously (a) didn't know anything about the material they were teaching and/or (b) were not smart, but I don't remember a single one who (a) was smart and (b) knew what they were talking about but (c) couldn't teach.

That may just be faulty or selective memory, but I don't think so. I went to an about-average high school, incidentally.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Random Michelle K said...

Well, I had the misfortune to go to a Catholic high school, so I had both extremes.

The English teacher for 3 of my four years of hight school had a PhD and now teaches at the university, but was one of the worst teachers I ever had. She was absolutely terrible--and I wasn't the only one who complained about her. She knew her material, but was both uninspiring and boring and I dreaded her classes.

My science teacher, however, had maybe a masters (but maybe not), and taught EVERY science class we had (I had a graduating class of 42--very small school). I took her for Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Adv Bio, Adv Chem, and would have taken her for Physiology (anatomy, whatever they called it), but it never fit into my schedule. She even taught Religion one year. I loved ALL of her classes--despite the fact that I dreaded my very first science class in high school and thought religion was a complete waste of time, since it kept me from taking real classes.

Her classes were by no means easy--she wanted you to learn, and challenged us. But she also loved to teach and she loved working with students and her classes were a joy.

And what I learned there grounded me for getting my biology degree in college. Was she an expert in all of those fields? Of course not. But she knew enough to give us a solid foundation in the basics, which combined with her enthusiasm, was precisely what we needed.

As I said before, it is that ability to inspire students that I strongly feel is the most important quality a teacher can have--and is a quality the vast majority of teachers never quite develop.

And I had teachers like that throughout school. Some were abysmal, but others were wonderful and made me enjoy going to school.

12:36 AM  

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