As readers of this journal know, I like to highlight work being done by classical liberal thinktanks. A recent piece by the estimable George Leef of the John William Pope Center for Higher Educational Policy affords me the opportunity to do so. It touches a topic about which I have written myself.
The topic is the dirtiest, darkest secret in American education: the general weakness of university education departments, through which pass most future teachers. These departments effectively control the teacher credentialing process in most states. They are truly cesspools of educational mediocrity.
Leef reviews a paper by an economist, Cory Koedel of the University of Missouri. Koedel conducted a detailed analysis of the grades given in education department courses, and we are all shocked — shocked! — to find grade inflation rampant.
Koedel found that profs in education departments award good grades to virtually all their students. In many ed school classes, all “students” receive As. It’s Carrollean: all the kids are winners, so all must have prizes. Koedel notes that this was recognized as a problem half a century ago. And I recall reviewing a book back in 1987 (Education’s Smoking Gun, by Reginald Damerell), a book that excoriated ed departments as hopelessly obstructionist and patently useless. But given the continuing decline of American students in the international rankings, this matter seems worth addressing with renewed interest.
Koedel notes that one reason for the easy grading is that there is no market discipline to check it. If an engineering department routinely gave As to even the most incompetent students, the market would punish it—very soon, its graduates would simply not find jobs. But no such discipline faces incompetent education school grads.
Of course, if we privatized the public school system by voucherizing all the schools, there would suddenly be market discipline. But I won’t pursue that topic here.
Leef adds a second reason for the fact that grade inflation is especially rampant in ed departments: they are ruled by an ideology that includes the view that the role of the teacher is to impart self-esteem directly to the student. Ed profs are merely being consistent — making their students feel good by shoveling the As at them.
I have no doubt that a big part of the problem with ed schools is a loopy leftist ideology, a kind of aging hippie Weltanschauung that worships books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It’s no surprise that when Bill Ayers decided he wanted to stop waging revolution and start working for wages, he became an ed school prof.
But I suspect that another part of the problem is simple ignorance about how to instill self-esteem. Alas, ed school profs don’t read Aristotle (he is, after all, a really dead white male). His view is one that the best teachers instinctively hold. It is that the way to create self-esteem is not to try to instill it directly, but instead to help each student develop his potential, his virtues; and from the exercise of his virtues he will get his rightful self-esteem. If you have a student who has ability at, say, math and music, encourage her to develop those abilities as far as she can, and from the mastery of those subjects will flow her self-esteem.
I am grateful to Leef for pointing out something of which I was unaware. Japan — a country where student performance has traditionally been excellent — has no ed schools. All teachers must actually get an undergraduate degree in an actual academic subject, and then find a teacher with whom they can apprentice, to learn the mechanics of the profession.
This raises the intriguing question of whether we could implement such a system here. Certainly something like that is being done by the group Teach for America, which takes Ivy League graduates in solid subjects and just gives them a course in the mechanics of classroom instruction. Its graduates are highly sought after.