Limited Taxation & Government


"For the Children"
Education Project

U.S. News & World Report
Outlook August 3, 1998

By John Leo
Dumbing down teachers

     A reader sent in a list of teacher-education courses at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst, along with a note: "This explains why 59 percent of prospective teachers in Massachusetts flunked a basic literacy test."The courses listed were: "Leadership in Changing Times," "Social Diversity in Education" (four different courses), "Embracing Diversity," "Diversity & Change," "Oppression & Education," "Introduction to Multicultural Education," "Black Identity," "Classism," "Racism," "Sexism," "Jewish Oppression," "Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Oppression," "Oppression of the Disabled," and (get this one) "Erroneous Beliefs."

     The reader was referring to a basic 10th-grade test in language, math, and other subjects, given to 1,800 would-be teachers in Massachusetts. Among other things, the 59 percent who failed often couldn't spell simple English words like "burned" and "abolished." Apparently they went into ed school without knowing much about anything, then came out the same way. But at least they are prepared to drill children in separatism, oppression, and erroneous beliefs.

     Our schools of education have been a national scandal for many years, but it's odd that they are rarely front-and-center in our endless debate about failing schools. The right talks about striving and standards, the left talks about equal funding and classroom size, but few talk much about the breeding grounds for school failure -- the trendy, antiachievement, oppression-obsessed, feel-good, esteem-ridden, content-free schools of education.

     For an article in City Journal, journalist Heather MacDonald recently visited New York's City College to see how a modern education school manages to fill its class time without making the dread, professional mistake of having any actual content or clear purpose. She found a teacher talking about "building a community, rich of talk" and how ed-school students should "develop the subtext of what they are doing." Each student wrote for seven minutes on "What excites me about teaching," "What concerns me about teaching," and "What was it like to do this writing?" After their writings were read aloud, the teacher said, "So writing gave you permission to think on paper about what's there."

     Stupid is as stupid does. Then the students split into small groups and talked about their feelings. "It shifted the comfort zone," said one student, already fluent in ed-speak. Another said: "I felt really comfortable. I had trust there." "Let's talk about that," said the teacher. "We are building trust in this class." But what they were not doing was talking about anything in the real world, or about how to teach real lessons to real children. The credo for ed schools, Mac Donald says, is "Anything but Knowledge." "Once you dismiss real knowledge as the goal of education," she writes about the make-work silliness in ed classes, "you have to find something else to do."

     The education schools take for granted that education must be "child centered," which means that children decide for themselves what they want to learn. Heavy emphasis is put on feelings and the self. An actual curriculum, listing things students ought to know, is viewed as cramping the human spirit. Ed-school students are taught to be suspicious of authority and the notion that teachers might be expected to know more than the children they teach, so the word "teacher" is in decline. The fad word is now "facilitator," part guide and part bystander watching the self-educating child.

     The traditional ed-school hostility to achievement currently hides behind the word "equity" -- bright students must be tamped down so slower learners will not feel bad about themselves. Smuggled in along with equality is the notion that performance and learning shouldn't really count -- they elevate some children at the expense of others. Grades and marks are bad, too, because they characterize and divide children. The result is that the brighter students get little help and are often the target of teacher resentment. Rita Kramer in her 1991 study of education schools, Ed School Follies, wrote: "What happens to those more capable or motivated students is hardly anyone's concern."

     This lack of concern for achievement now has a racial cast. Asian and white children are often depicted as somehow out of step if they work harder and achieve more than blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities. Instead of working hard with children to reduce the racial gap, ed-school theory calls for strategies to conceal it under group projects or simply to demonstrate that achievement doesn't matter.

     Various experiments are underway to let bright college graduates bypass education schools. Connecticut has a program allowing graduates to switch into teaching from other careers simply by taking an eight-week summer course and a test. In New York, the Teach for America program produced a sudden infusion of very good teachers into public schools, also by bypassing the ed-school swamp. But the hidebound education industry is digging in to close these loopholes and protect its closed-shop monopoly. It makes no sense to force teachers through schools as bad as these. People should be able to qualify as teachers simply by passing rigorous tests in their area of competence. Scrapping the ed-school requirement is clearly the way to go.

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