A Speech by John Stone at AEI on June 9, 2003
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Since the sixties, I have taught educational psychology at 4 universities. I have been in the College of Education at East Tennessee State University since the seventies.
ETSU was founded as a normal school in 1911. It now has 12,000 students–800 of which are in the College of Education. It is much like James Madison and George Mason Universities that are closer here to Washington.
As to whether the schools of education can be reformed, frankly, I am not optimistic.
In my view, they are out of touch with the public. The training received by most teachers is based on teacher education’s vision of a better world, not on the public’s aims.
BTW, my view isn’t unique. The same complaint has been voiced by numerous observers, most recently by the teachers surveyed in Public Agenda’s new report: Stand By Me.
If you are interested in learning more about the opinion of education professors, there isn’t a better source than Public Agenda’s Different Drummers (1997).
I suppose that I never fully appreciated the gap between what professors think and what parents want for their children until my children went to school.
In the early nineties, our local campus school adopted a number of innovative practices. It had been an excellent school. There wasn’t any need for change as far as the community was concerned. The vast majority of parents were opposed. But the changes were installed anyway.
It was an object lesson for me. It showed me why training founded on the pedagogical enthusiasms of professors is so dangerous: Teachers are entrusted with future of the country yet they may have been taught practices based on nothing more than theory and speculation. Parents who cannot afford private schooling can only hope that the experiment won’t go badly.
Public school policies are decided through democratic processes. In theory, there is fair and open discussion. In fact, parents, school board members, and the lay public get only one side of the story–the side that school leaders want them to hear. Almost everything comes from sources that are loyal to the education community.
This observation spurred me to found the Education Consumers ClearingHouse (www.education-consumers.com)–an online, subscriber-supported service for parents, policymakers, and taxpayers. It is founded on the belief education’s consumers need facts and expert opinion that are not compromised by conflicting loyalties and interests.
We are a kind of Consumers Union for the consumers of public education. We market ourselves to consumers exclusively. We serve the consumer interest unambiguously and unapologetically.
So, that’s my point of view in what I am telling you today.
What the Public Wants
Here’s what I mean when I say that the colleges of education are out of touch with the public. In my view, they have been entrusted with the responsibility to train teachers in a way that respects the public’s aims; but from 30 years of faculty meetings, I can tell you that when the public’s aims are thought of at all, they are typically viewed as a nuisance.
Education’s consumers want a variety of things from the public schools. Their top priority, however, is that all students will have the knowledge and skills necessary to get a job or get into college.
Public education is strongly supported precisely because everyone recognizes that if kids grow up unprepared for college or the workplace, it is bad for the community and it is devastating for the individual.
Schools have a broader mission than just teaching the basics, but the basics are the top priority. Failure to teach the basics is considered unsatisfactory no matter what else a school is said to produce.
What Professors of Education Want
On the surface, education professors agree with the public–but there is a caveat. For a variety of reasons–many having to do with their desire to promote equity, diversity, and social justice–professors believe that students who have memorized facts and gained skills through recitation, drill, practice, and the like, have been shortchanged.
Education professors contend that students who learn “the basics” through systematic, step-by-step methods, will lack the ability to integrate and creatively apply what they have learned. In other words, they will lack “thinking skills”–skills that the professors say must be taught through “hands-on” interaction with the real world. Presumably, they are saving our children from becoming nerds and bookworms.
So instead of urging teachers to teach the basics and then add thinking skills, education professors tell teachers to use so called “best practice” teaching, i.e., teaching that blends the basics into student-led, collaborative learning experiences that are designed to produce thinking skills as an incidental outcome. Professors urge teachers to be a “guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.”
And there is the nub of the problem. For nearly 100 years, teachers have tried to bring about student achievement by using what professors call “best practice,” and it just hasn’t worked.
Except in the cases of students who are unusually well prepared, highly motivated, and well behaved, it does not produce the knowledge and skills expected by the public; and it doesn’t do so because it is built around a different set of educational priorities. Students end up with all kinds of gaps and deficiencies in their education.
Professors are aware of this shortcoming but they reject the idea that their theory is flawed merely because it fails to produce what the public wants. Instead, they see the public’s aims as the problem. In their view, just because the public furnishes the children and the money it doesn’t mean that the public is entitled to get the kind of schooling it wants.
They believe that they, not the public, should decide which methods are best.
If you think I am exaggerating, I urge you to read an article that won the American Educational Research Association’s “Review of Research” award last year. It discusses what teachers face when trying to use “constructivist” teaching practices. Here is quote: “Teachers not only feel pressure from the standards movement, but often feel they must ‘tune’ their instruction to expectations from parents and students.”
See: Windschitl, Mark (2002). Framing constructivism in practice as the negotiation of dilemmas: An analysis of the conceptual, pedagogical, cultural, and political challenges facing teachers, Review of Educational Research, 72(2), 131-175.
Idealism and Fads
Some of education’s most egregious fads have been attempts to make this “best practice” teaching, work as advertised.
Let me cite two quick examples: The open classroom and self-esteem movements.
The open classroom concept was designed to enhance the student-led, collaborative learning. The idea was that multiple teachers, multiple classes, and multiple subjects would all be taught in one large room. Unlike most fads, it required a change in school architecture–namely large open-space classrooms. You may have noticed the round schoolhouses?
Almost immediately, teachers found it unworkable. Disruption and distraction were nearly continuous.
The cost of correcting the problem was enormous. Prince George’s County had to go back and spend millions on building interior walls. And there is no way of knowing the human cost in lost student learning.
The movement to boost student self-esteem was premised on the notion that collaborative, student-led instruction would be more effective if students were made more self-confident, open-minded, and willing to take risks.
It was supported by research showing that self-esteem is correlated with high achievement, but it never worked. It turns out that high achievement promotes positive self-esteem, but boosting self-esteem doesn’t necessarily increase achievement.
These two are among thousands of examples that could be cited, and they perfectly illustrate why I say that the colleges of education are out of touch with the pubic.
People no more want their children subjected to experimentation at school than they do at the hospital; yet over the years, teachers have been trained in thousands of untested, faddish practices by colleges of education.
What is the point of accredited teacher training and teacher licensure if it doesn’t prevent this sort of thing?
Why Regulation hasn’t Worked
Teaching is a massively regulated profession, yet educators are largely immune from the consequences of faulty practice. There are few regulatory penalties. Most malpractice suits have been thrown out. And, most importantly, there are no market consequences for failure. Schools that do a bad job typically get more money, not less.
Teachers can be trained and licensed in pedagogical nonsense and there are no consequences for either the teachers or the professors who trained them.
Once again, the problem is that unlike medicine, engineering, and most other professions, there are no market forces to put teeth into the regulatory process. For example, if a medical school turns out quacks, patients, lawyers, and journalists will eventually expose the problem; and consumers will flee.
Everyone from medical school faculty, to the licensing and accrediting boards, to other members of the profession will want something done. By contrast, educational quackery has been found time and again, and everyone ignores it.
Lay oversight bodies and state education agencies exist to defend the public’s interest but they rarely investigate the causes of educational failure. Instead, they typically seek help from the very agencies that misadvised them in the past.
Oversight boards have a changing membership, and they rely on professional staff that have a revolving door relationship with the schools and colleges of education. Any educator working for a board or a state agency knows that he or she may need a job after the next election–so they are not inclined to stir controversy.
These conflicting loyalties are generally under everyone’s radar but they result in policy that reflects the education community’s agenda, not the public’s.
BTW, your packet contains an article from this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education that discusses this issue [Stone, J. E. (2003, June 6). Buyers and sellers of educational research. Chronicle of Higher Education, p. B12.] It argues that education policymakers are misled about educational research for much the same reason that Enron’s investors were misled by the brokerage houses.
In closing, I would like to offer 3 recommendations for policymakers:
1. As you make decisions about teacher training and certification, bear in mind that colleges of education have a vision of teaching and learning that is at odds with the public’s educational priorities. They have revised and reformed themselves many times over the decades, but the outcome has always been the same–another permutation of the same basic doctrines.
2. The ability of a teacher to produce achievement is not something that the colleges should be trusted to judge for themselves. If policymakers want colleges of education to respect the public’s priorities, they will have to independently audit the student learning gains produced by newly minted teachers. Contrary to what is often assumed, it is possible to fairly and objectively judge this outcome. Tennessee has been doing so for the past 10 years.
3. The colleges of education need competition. Their virtual monopoly on training and certification has not well served the public. I think the Department of Education’s emphasis on the subject-matter preparation of teachers is a step in the right direction. The key issue, however, is to allow individuals to become teachers without having to undergo training in the untested and often fanciful practices that are too often taught in schools of education.
In conclusion, I would like to see the schools of education preserved but only if they are reformed. For too many years, I have seen what goes on. In my opinion, they need to be reigned in or replaced.