Excerpted from Ed School Follies by Rita Kramer. Copyright ©1991 by Rita Kramer. Reprinted with the permission of The Free Press, a division of MacMillan Inc.
The State University of New York is the nation's largest university system, with about 390,000 students on over 64 campuses. The SUNY campus at Plattsburgh is in what people who live there call the North Country, almost at the Canadian border. It is an economically depressed area, with no industry, little manufacturing, and only two main customers for services—the university itself and the nearby Air Force base.
The boyish-looking president of the university has made me welcome and told me a little about the Center for Teacher Education. A 2.5 grade average—the equivalent of a B– or C+—is the only entrance requirement for its undergraduate program. About one-third of the students come from the Long Island towns and other suburbs of New York City; about one-third come from other parts of the state, mostly from the district around Albany, the state capital; the remaining third grew up around here in the north. Only 4 percent belong to that vast student population still euphemistically referred to as "minority," meaning all groups classified as other than white. There is, however, the president tells me, much "multicultural" representation in the area. He explains that "around here, 'multicultural' means rural."
As I take a seat in a classroom I see over the blackboard at the front of the room, in large script, the legend: "We Choose to Feel Special and Worthwhile No Matter What."
The hour begins with the usual shuffling of papers to be returned, announcements about the upcoming final exam, and summary of the preceding class. They had been talking about classroom management, about the physical setup of the classroom and "how it impacts on the teaching-learning situation." Now they are moving to the question of assessment, from "issues of planning and implementing instruction" to "evaluating" it. In short, tests.
Appropriately enough, they are to begin with a short quiz. As I watch the young professor move from table to table handing out copies of the purple-lettered worksheet, smiling, calling the students—mostly young women—by name as he answers their questions, it strikes me that with his neat suit and tie, mustache and glasses, and pleasant manner, he could be a middle-management corporate executive anywhere in America. And he would not only be making a considerably higher salary, he would not be expected to spend his evenings making up worksheets and grading examination papers. What makes him—or others—choose teaching as a profession?
At the moment, surrounded as I am by students, I can only put this question to young women. Amy says, "I love little kids. I grew up with five older brothers and sisters, and my mom always had foster kids and baby sat." Lucy has a 4-year-old son. "When he gets to school I'll have the same working hours he does." Laurie too "loves kids." She actually beams when she says the words, as though they are completely new.
"Loving kids" as the motive for choosing a teaching career, the idea that at every level school should provide "a warm, caring environment," are axioms that go unquestioned, as the reactions to the questionnaire on grading and testing make clear. Some of the questions on the worksheet are: Do you think a student's I.Q. should be taken into consideration in his or her grade? Should effort play a part in a student's grade? Where do you stand on at least one large test for each marking period? Is the student's social class a factor? Where do you stand on the idea of a grading curve—an equal number of people receiving low grades and high grades?
Tabulation of the answers reveals that the main concern of these future teachers is not inspiring good students but protecting the average and the poor ones. "You should look at the effort, the amount of participation, not the intelligence level." Not surprisingly, they think of themselves as "average." They want everyone to end up with a passing grade—in school, in society, in life.
To that end in the discussion that follows they suggest various Byzantine ways of begging the question of standards. "What about the third-grader who tries," one of them asks, "but just can't learn to read?" "Mark him for effort." "Don't use grades to discourage him." "Use grades as positive reinforcement." "There are some who strive but it's tough for them. So the struggle should count." "Why not separate things—give him a D for achievement and an A for effort." The last solution elicits laughter from everyone—a manifestation of the good-natured attitude that seems to characterize their personalities as well as their positions.
The only question raised to challenge these views is, "What if you pass a poor student on to a situation where he can't survive?" The focus is still not on any objective goal but on the well-being of the individual student. But now the instructor steps in and asks the class, "What are grades for? Why do we give grades?" "They make us." (Laughter) "To get feedback about achievement." "To keep track of overall improvement. Moving from an F to a C means more than getting As all the time." "To have something to tell the parents." "For the teacher's benefit—to see how effective you are."
The responses give the instructor an opening to remind them of some of the reading they've been assigned in their textbook this semester. "Bloom's taxonomy…judgment based on criteria.…" Blank faces. They looked alive when giving their opinions, recounting their experiences. Faced with an abstract argument, they seem to go dead. He perseveres nevertheless, reminding them of the agenda: planning, which involves setting goals; implementing; evaluating, which involves having some objective criteria. They're not disrespectful, they don't argue, but one can see they're not buying it. They don't like the idea of objective criteria for grading. They want to make allowances for poor performance and, if possible, rule out failure altogether. In the end he finds a common area of agreement between himself, a teacher of teachers, and his pupils who will fan out to the public schools to teach children, including three of his own: "A lot of the learning that goes on in a classroom is not based on performance objectives."
A class in Elementary Foundations of Education proves elementary indeed. It is a room full of girls, all of whom seem to have spent more time thinking about the arrangement of their hair that morning than about the theories of child development, educational psychology, and the history and philosophy of education which they are presumably here to discuss. Peggy, Sharon, Lynne, and Mary Beth, like members of the other groups of four or five, have prepared descriptions of a philosophy of education for their classmates. These are shallow summaries in a paragraph or two of complex ideas that most members of the class will be spared having to read in their original forms, purple printed pages decorated with little drawings evidently meant to supplement the meager text.
The definition of "perennialism," the subject of this morning's first presentation, is given in the form of a flower whose petals are labeled "truth," "beauty," and "goodness," the leaves "classical" and "realism," and the stem "Great Books." Mortimer Adler is identified as the leading proponent of this school of thought and the phrase "liberal education" is mentioned. The group carrying out this assignment has gone to the library and taken out some of the great books, which they have brought to class and arranged on a table. Displayed are worn library copies of Aeschylus, Dante, Machiavelli, Plato, Aristotle, Homer. Some of the girls walk to the table and look at the books but do not bother opening any of them.
One member of the class, when called on for discussion, volunteers, "Liberal arts is not what we're interested in. Here you want to start learning about your life." She goes on, "We've been doing liberal arts all our lives in school. Now I want to learn about teaching little children." During the break I ask her what liberal arts she has studied. She tells me she has taken courses in psychology, economics, and sociology. She is 19, and what she knows about the liberal arts is that she isn't interested in them.
Most of her classmates agree, "I like school and stuff, but.…" trails off into a shrug. "The teachers here," says another, "they're so knowledgeable of their courses." Another says, "You get burned out in college." "We could argue till we're blue in the face, we all have different opinions, so why argue? We want to get out of school, get out there and teach." They take a vote, and only one out of the 24 votes for a system that would require four years of liberal arts prior to teacher training courses. "Why waste four years on this liberal arts stuff after 19 years of straight education?" is the way Michele puts it.
The "existentialists" fare somewhat better than the "perennialists" in the morning's demonstrations. The printed description is simple but clear, and verbal rather than visual. ("The individuals make responsible choices freely…allow students to freely select topics for study…make the school fit the child instead of making the child fit the school.")
Asked by the instructor how they want to present their topic, the young ladies representing existentialism say they will act out a classroom situation illustrating it. While four of them sit on the floor pretending to do different things, the fifth, playing teacher, asks how they want to spend the next hour. Two vote for a science project, one votes with her feet, saying she will go out in the playground and pretends to open a door and leave the imaginary classroom, and the fourth has no opinion. The science project is to consist of making an Albert Einstein puppet. "How do you feel about that?" the pretend teacher asks the fourth pupil, in an unconscious parody of the Summerhill kind of school one assumes they have in mind. A little more pretending to be children, a lot of giggling, and the real professor sits by, smiling as she watches. The pretend teacher looks at her pupils' imaginary handiwork and says, "That was a really nice group activity."
The hour is drawing to a close, and from her seat at the side of the room the earnest and attractive young professor tries to stimulate questions from the group. A few of the students make statements about whether they liked or did not like the kind of school depicted and whether they thought it would or would not "work." Most sentences are finished with something like "dada dada," as in, "If the teacher just says, 'Do this, dada dada.…'" Or, "The teacher's gonna be like, well.…"
Summing up, the professor asks the class, "Do you think an existential education person would be a conformist or a nonconformist?" Several students call out, "nonconformist." "Good," she says, smiling.
Eastern Michigan University looks a lot more like the Plattsburgh campus of SUNY than its next-door neighbor, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Like Plattsburgh, it began life as a state normal school, the first such teacher-training college west of the Alleghenies. A marker at the entrance to the unprepossessing campus notes the founding of Michigan State Normal School in 1849 with the aim of providing instruction "in the art of teaching and in all the various branches that pertain to a good common school education."
EMU is the largest producer of teachers in the country.
Curious about how teachers of teachers feel about the issue of sex education in the classroom, I choose to start my first day at EMU in a class on Health Education in the Elementary Grades, a required course for all elementary certification students.
The Health Education class is simple and obvious. Keep a flashlight in your desk for emergencies like power failure; don't wear red under fluorescent lighting. The five men and 18 women, presumably grownups—one of them mentions that she is the mother of four—have been given an outline of the material covered, yet they all take notes as they listen. A whole hour of this—the subject is classroom lighting—and yet the teacher somehow holds their attention. She's forceful, funny, a little mocking of the material even as she explains, gives examples. On a scale of 1 to 10, the course is a 1 as subject matter, a 10 as a demonstration of method.
After class, I learn that I've come during the part of the course that precedes the later treatment of sex and AIDS education—"reproductive health," it is called. "Sex," the teacher comments, "is threatening to parents." She tries to keep the emphasis on reproductive biology, not interpersonal relations, thinks the Michigan Model, a K through 7 comprehensive health curriculum that mandates teaching about AIDS in elementary school and has been adopted by 400 districts in the state, is "exciting."
On her desk stands what looks like a taper left over from some candlelit dinner party. It is a dildo, she tells me matter-of-factly, used to demonstrate the use of condoms. No, she never would have expected, at the beginning of her teaching career, to be doing this. "But I'm teaching them"—the education students, about to become teachers—"what they need to know, not what they will teach kids in their classrooms.…
"Young teachers today are just not well educated enough to do the job we're asking of them. I look at them and I think, How are you going to manage? They're ignorant, naive, they have low abilities. Let's face it, education is what you go into if you can't get into anything else. I had a student, a very nice young man, who liked people and got along well with kids but just could not write. His mother called me to complain because he was failing and I asked her, 'Does he really belong in education? In that field, our tools are reading and writing.' And she said, 'But if he's not a teacher, he'll have to go and work on the line.' So there you have it. We're the next-to-the-bottom rung."
That same morning, dispirited by what I've just heard, I take my seat in a section of a secondary methods course on Teaching Social Studies, expecting the worst. What I get instead is a taste of education, something I'd almost given up expecting to find.
"We're discussing background…theories…bias" is what I hear as I take my notebook and pen out. The text on the armrests of the chairs around me is The Western Intellectual Tradition: From Leonardo to Hegel, written by J. Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish some 30 years ago and revised about 15 years ago. As I look around the room it seems to me the students are more alert, more focused, than the elementary group I've seen earlier. As the hour proceeds, their comments and questions make it clear they are more intelligent, more articulate. There are many more men—13 in the class of 20—and two middle-aged women, along with five younger ones.
I wouldn't have been able to predict the direction the class would take from the way it began. "Bias," the dark-haired, bearded, casually dressed professor is saying, "means something has to be left out for some purpose. Take the title of this book. It leaves out Eastern thought and how the West drew on it, and parts of non-Christian Western Europe, and even then it's just a history of thought. And even in those 400 years it covers, it leaves out women. It was written in the '50s, and our frame of reference has changed. The civil rights and women's movements, the awareness of minorities, had not hit the scene yet. Our consciousness has been raised since then. History meant to these authors a male orientation. If you were to use this book—not as a text, of course, but even as a source book—you would have to recognize the bias in the book and do some digging around to include women in those 400 years. No women intellectuals in that period? What about the patrons in Italian noble families? You'd point out the Jewish importance at the roots of Christianity.…" And somehow, having said what has to be said about the role of minorities, we have elided into talking about civilization, the expanding world.
There is discussion of the move from the medieval religious society in Western Europe to the secular, to nationalism, exploration and colonization, the development of mercantile capitalism, the industrial and commercial revolution. Questioning, summarizing, the professor, a former high school teacher of history, suggests how these student teachers might present or highlight an idea, an example. How could they help their students relate the Renaissance to what came before and after? ("Let's pursue Leonardo. How does he represent one of those characteristics we associate with the Renaissance?") What's an effective way to bring in documents? To bring in references to other cultures that are significant? ("In Confucian times we find…")
I leave the class exhilarated. The level of interest shown by these teaching students (self-selected, to be sure; this is not a required course) is like a reminder of something forgotten. As I walk across the campus, thinking about some of the things I have heard, it occurs to me that students would need to master basic skills in grade school if they were going to be able to follow and understand in high school a book like the one we have been discussing. If you have spent all your time learning to adjust, you don't have the vocabulary or the habits of mind to call on. Perhaps the students in this class and others like them will be the new monks, keeping learning alive in a new kind of academic dark age.
The class in Social Aspects of Teaching, a course required of all certification students, consists entirely of women. Four of them are mothers preparing to go back to work now that their children are in school, and the other dozen or so range from a couple who might have been taken for not-very-bright high school students to a few who are self-possessed, attentive, and articulate. Responses not surprisingly range from the vague and meandering beside the point to focused and germane to the issue, which on this day is the Hidden Curriculum.
The capital letters are there in the emphasis given the words by the professor, a young woman whose somewhat bohemian dress, a long skirt, and an oversized dark sweater embroidered with what looked like a South American Indian motif contrast with the standard jeans and corduroys, bulky sweaters, and down vests of her students. A young woman with a blank face chews gum next to an alert-looking bespectacled student of about 30 writing in a looseleaf notebook. They are a blue-collar group, as their occasional references to their own lives make clear (a husband on the line, a father out of work, the first of her family to go to college).
We get right down to business with a distinction between the functionalists, who say the hidden curriculum (we are not debating its existence) is necessary, integrative, helps fit individuals' into society's needs, and the conflict theorists, who say the hidden curriculum is what those in power, "capitalists," want, that it serves the interests of one socioeconomic group over the interests of others. The professor then offers a definition of ideology: "a shared system of beliefs of a dominant class or culture."
Watch out, she tells them, for ideological bias in social science textbooks. They can be "vehicles for leaving things out and a person who doesn't know that doesn't question it, doesn't ask whose interest it is in." Example: the ideology defining the place of women in the 19th century. Men benefited. She asks for other examples of beliefs grounded in social structure.
The A student, the one who always has the answer and does most of the talking ("Can I hear from someone besides Amy?" the professor asks plaintively at one point), has her hand up. "Going to the doctor," she says. "That's an ideology. It benefits the group of doctors at the expense of native healers and herbalists, people who practice holistic medicine."
The others are catching onto what the teacher wants. "Prescriptions," says a young woman with a vast cloud of blond hair. "The IUD benefits the prescription companies [sic] at the expense of women." The professor nods. "As a culture we've become the medical model."
A heavyset sallow young woman offers: "The power people who own the textbook companies—" she pauses, looking at the professor, then says, "The capitalists—they want us to think unions are bad." The professor nods again, encouraging. "The people doing the selecting," she says, "the district school boards, don't take into account lower-class culture."
A young woman who has been quiet up to now raises her hand and asks the professor, "As a teacher, aren't you supposed to teach what's in the curriculum? That's your job? You can't just.…" She's not getting encouragement from the front of the room. She trails off.
"I wouldn't be teaching you to question the texts you give your students," says the professor, "if I didn't want you to read the material you give your students critically and find ways of supplementing it, correcting it." She moves on to a discussion of an article from the Harvard Educational Review called "Tootle: A Parable of Schooling and Destiny," copies of which she has given all the students to read. In it, a university professor analyzes the text of a Little Golden Book, first published in 1945 and by now a classic of children's literature, that tells the story of what happens when a young locomotive goes off the track, fails to follow the rules of the school for engines. In the end Tootle learns there is nothing but trouble for locomotives that go off their tracks, and when he becomes a famous Flyer he advises the young locomotives, "Work hard.…Always remember to Stop for a Red Flag Waving. But most of all, Stay on the Rails No Matter What."
In 18 pages, the story is exhaustively analyzed as a "picture of society…meritocratic…a class system" which "works because responsible authorities make decisions and because everyone else follows rules." There's a good bit about "the State…conspiracy…surveillance" and Tootle as "a worker, not a decision maker" who has to "stay in his place without question" and not "presume to choose his own course or destiny," rewarded in the end for conforming to the manipulators.
It is not clear whether the author of the article would ban Tootle, rewrite it, or provide each 3-year-old with a study guide. It is also not clear from anything this earnest young professor tells her class of unsophisticated young women—and they would have no other way of knowing this—that the article itself represents a particular ideology, the Marxist "revisionist" school, many of whose members are the authors cited in its scholarly footnotes.
"Tootle didn't seem to me," says one of the students, but she isn't good at argument. "…to be about all that," she finishes lamely.
Another, one of the older women, says, "What would a 6-year-old get out of it? I read it to my kid. 'Work hard in school'—isn't that what we all want?"
The professor pounces on this statement. "What does that sound like? Anyone?"
Amy, the A student, has got it. "Meritocracy! And if it doesn't work, if you don't succeed, you think, What's wrong with me? Because it doesn't always work."
New Jersey's Provisional Teacher Program is in its fifth year when I see it in operation in the summer of 1989. A pioneer on the alternate certification route, the program takes eligible college graduates who want to teach and immediately puts them into a classroom, where they have full-time one-on-one supervision by an experienced mentor teacher for a month and less intense but close supervision by a support team for a full school year.
During that time, they also take 200 hours of instruction on evenings and weekends in teaching methods and techniques and related matters. They learn about classroom management, lesson planning, discipline, use of the prescribed curriculum, and how to find and use other kinds of resources. At the end of a year of full-time teaching, if they have passed the National Teacher Examination at the required state level and satisfactorily completed the 200 hours of course work, they are eligible for regular certification in the subject that was their college major if they plan to teach in high school, or in generic teaching if they'll be teaching elementary grades. The point is that they have to have majored in some subject area, not in education.
The purpose of the program is to get people into the classroom who might not think the investment of time and money required by traditional graduate education programs worth their while. The real question is whether such alternatives attract not only more but better teachers.
The group I sit in with are intelligent, highly motivated, and high-spirited. It is now the end of the school year, and they are sharing anecdotes—horror stories about children, parents, and principals as well as moments of triumph—and making plans for an end-of-year celebration complete with T-shirts that will read "NJ Provisional Teacher Program—The Road Less Taken." They seem to have acquired a grasp of how to juggle the many responsibilities of a classroom teacher and to be facing what lies ahead for them with enthusiasm. The only trouble with them is that they don't seem to know very much more than the graduate ed students I've seen and talked with.
For instance, a young man whose bookish demeanor and interest in teaching English in high school seem at first glance to be impressive says about the difficulty of teaching both writing skills and grammar: "It's hard, hard to…like, disseminate?—is that the word I want, disseminate?—mix together.…" He pauses, evidently at a loss, and the lecturer offers, "Integrate?" Relieved, he says, "Yes, integrate."
On one summer evening I sit in with a group that meets in a stifling classroom in the high school of a small New Jersey town. They have come from cities and suburbs where they are teaching elementary and high school classes. There are more women than men, and more whites than blacks, but more men and more blacks than in most education classes I've been in. I have been told that one of the effects of this program has been to attract increasing numbers of minority students—22 percent, as compared with 10 percent of the state and 5 percent of the national enrollment in teacher training. "They may not think of teaching while they're in school," one of the program administrators says of the black and Hispanic students, "and then they graduate into the real world and decide they'd like to teach."
The crash course that will enable them to do so with a minimum of delay and expense is led on this evening by a lecturer from a state college with many years of high-school teaching experience behind him. He spends the first hour and a half on the topic of planning, talking about the different ways in which a high school teacher concerned with graduation requirements in his subject and an elementary teacher concerned with an entire spectrum of subjects both have to plan their objectives in content and skills for September to June, then for each marking period, finally for every single day, and how their goals and expectations should be set, evaluated, and revised when necessary.
"You can't just have an idea of what you're going to cover over the year and then wing it day by day, figuring you'll get there somehow. If you do that you're neglecting your professional responsibilities. And when you bring the day's lesson to closure," he reminds them, "you have to have a way of evaluating what they've understood."
As the evening progresses, judging by the response of the class, they are learning a good deal that will really be useful in teaching. The comments of both lecturer and class actually reflect the realities of the world of the classroom.
"Judy, as a fourth-grade teacher you have to cover the whole nine yards of subjects: English—well, they call that language arts now—spelling, writing, vocabulary—they don't learn to diagram sentences anymore, do they, it's a shame—reading, math, science, social studies.…"
Martha, who's black and teaching in an inner-city elementary school, complains about textbooks: "I wish they'd get a writer to write them. The way they're written, they make the history so boring."
The lecturer agrees. "It's not just the style. There are no ideas in them. They should talk about things like the effect of the frontier on the American spirit. Kids can deal with that."
Linda says, "You start at the beginning of September with 10 kids and you end up with 40. You better not write the names in ink in your grade book, they come and go so fast."
The lecturer nods, "And you've got paperwork up the kazoo. You have to fill out a form for everything. And meetings. The beginning-of-the-year 'Let's Get 'Em' meeting. The Association meeting. The district meeting on drugs and alcohol that's required by law now….
"What's the first thing you want to try to achieve in September?" he asks them. Laura answers immediately: "Order." Mona says, "Getting to know them, who they are."
The talk turns to violence and the movement for conflict resolution in urban schools. Instead of the principal or vice principal imposing discipline (it can get confrontational), "a student team might adjudicate fights."
Nina tells about a fight that broke out between two girls in the junior high school where she is teaching. "One of them was banging the other's head on the floor and she could have cracked it wide open. Not one adult made a move. Not one. The assistant principal was right there, too. I got in between them and stopped it and took the one of them down to the A.P.'s office. And he's like, oh, you're brave!"
Donna speaks up. "I don't know what to do. I have kids in my class who can't speak, can't move. I have others who can read and do multiplication. In the same group." At this, Elena turns to her and says, "I have a blind, deaf child. I don't know what to do with him. I just go over and touch him every once in a while." For a minute, nobody says anything.
Then the lecturer breaks the silence. "None of us can imagine," he says quickly, "at least I can't imagine—what it must be like not to be able to see, to hear.…" All of us must be wondering the same things. What it's like for the teacher, for Elena? What can she do for this child? How much of her energy, the resources needed to teach the children able to learn from her, is spent? Is it worthwhile, or a waste?
Wherever I went in my year of crisscrossing the country from one college or university to another, whether in public institutions or on private campuses, in urban centers or rural areas, I found a striking degree of conformity about what is considered to be the business of schools and the job of teachers. Everywhere I visited, in new concrete structures and old stone halls of ivy, among undergraduates or older students, I heard the same things over and over again. And failed to hear others.
Everywhere, I found idealistic people eager to do good. And everywhere, I found them being told that the way to do good was to prepare themselves to cure a sick society. To become therapists, as it were, specializing in the pathology of education. Almost nowhere did I find teachers of teachers whose emphasis was on the measurable learning of real knowledge. The aim is not to produce individuals capable of effort and mastery but to make sure everyone gets a passing grade. The school is to be remade into a republic of feelings—as distinct from a republic of learning—where everyone can feel he deserves an A.
In order to create a more just society, future teachers are being told, they must focus on the handicapped of all kinds—those who have the greatest difficulties in learning, whether because of physical problems or emotional ones, congenital conditions or those caused by lack of stimulation in the family or lack of structure in the home—in order to have everyone come out equal in the end. What matters is not to teach any particular subject or skill, not to preserve past accomplishments or stimulate future achievements, but to give to all that stamp of approval that will make them "feel good about themselves." Self-esteem has replaced understanding as the goal of education.
Thus the education of teachers has not only been politicized; it has been reoriented toward what is euphemistically called "special education." The ed-school culture today is dominated by the diagnosis of learning pathologies and the development of learning therapies—methods for dealing with, if not actually teaching anything to, the various kinds of children with learning difficulties. It is no longer acceptable to think in terms of different systems for different kinds of students of differing degrees of ability and motivation, since it is no longer learning that is at the center of the educational enterprise but, increasingly, the promotion of "equity." What happens to those more-capable or motivated students is hardly anyone's concern.
Where the purpose of the educational system is to promote "self-esteem" regardless of actual accomplishment, substitutes for accomplishment must be found. In the current political climate the chief substitute for measurable individual achievement has become emphasis on the (superior) characteristics of the racial or ethnic subgroup to which one belongs. As a result, the emphasis is shifted from the common values of the larger society to identification with the special interests—and perceived grievances—of this or that racial or ethnic groups. And membership in a particular group becomes a more important qualification for teaching than expertise or experience. Thus the ubiquitous concern in teacher education for more "minority teachers" rather than for more good teachers of science, math, history, or literature, no matter who they are or where they come from.
As separatism is emphasized and content trivialized, accountability is ignored. Testing, in the ed-school world, is almost as bad as "tracking" students by ability. No one wants to know the actual results of these policies—whether they really help poor students, how they affect the bright and the gifted. The ed-school establishment is more concerned with politics—both academic and ideological—than with learning.
Since what matters is not whether or not anyone has learned anything, but that no one fail to pass, the threshold is lowered as required for almost anyone to get by—in the schooling of teachers as well as in the schools in which they will teach. After all, special methods, not specific subject matter, are what they will be expected to demonstrate.
Meanwhile, any criticism of this state of affairs is met with the charge of elitism or, worse still, racism. No one in the ed-school universe dares publicly to advocate a curriculum that resists the "cooperative learning," the "multicultural" and "global" approach that is often a thinly disguised rejection of individualistic democratic values and institutions and of the very idea that underneath all our variety of backgrounds we Americans have been and should continue to become one nation, one culture.
The only way to have better schools is to get better teachers. We will never improve schooling, no matter how many reports by commissions, panels, and committees prescribe whatever changes in how the schools are structured or how reading or math is taught, until we improve teacher education. What we have today are teacher-producing factories that process material from the bottom of the heap and turn out models that perform, but not well enough. What we need is to sacrifice quantity for quality, in both the institutions that educate teachers and their graduates. The institutions should be essentially academic, and their graduates should be judged by how much they know, not just how much they care.
If we expect to attract better applicants, they will have to be able to look forward to being paid well; to being given a measure of independence from administrators, politicians, and special-interest groups; and to being able to advance in their profession according to their achievement in a more narrowly defined job. That means as teachers of reading and writing skills, of history, science, math, literature—not as social workers, baby sitters, policemen, diagnosticians, drug counselors, psychotherapists.
At present, our teacher-training institutions are producing for the classrooms of America experts in methods of teaching with nothing to apply those methods to. Their technique is abundant, their knowledge of science and the liberal arts practically nonexistent. A mastery of instructional strategies, an emphasis on educational psychology, a familiarity with pedagogical philosophies have gradually taken the place of a knowledge of history, literature, science, and mathematics. Little wonder then that in so many of our high schools those subjects have given way to courses in filmmaking, driver education, and marriage and family living. Neither possessing nor respecting knowledge themselves, how can teachers imbue their students with any enthusiasm for it? Nowhere in America today is intellectual life deader than in our schools—unless it is in our schools of education.
We have set aside equality of opportunity—the idea of opening doors to anyone—and replaced it with equality of results. Everyone has to pass, to be promoted, to enter college, to get a degree. And so a degree has come to mean little more than that one is alive and has applied for one.
That is why alternative certification programs are no panacea for the ills that affect our schools. The good news about these programs is that they provide a way to circumvent the unnecessary baggage imposed by the ed-school curriculum, leaving room for substantive learning instead. The bad news is that the people coming out of these programs are only as good as the education they themselves have had—which brings us back full circle to the cumulative inadequacies of an educational system whose erosion of standards has left the average college degree meaning very little and the average college graduate not particularly rich in substantive learning.
Rita Kramer is the author of Maria Montessori: A Biography, In Defense of the Family, and At a Tender Age: Violent Youth and Juvenile Justice.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "School Daze".