Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Are Education Majors Too Easy?

Last week at EdWeek, Cristiina Duncan Evans said yes, yes they are. But while she raises some interesting points, she also misses the boat on others. (Apologies to those of you hoping for a discussion of the promiscuity of education majors.)

What's the problem?

Evans opens by noting that, had she gone into an actual teacher program, she probably would have quit before finishing.

This may seem a like a weird statement if you consider that I love learning and I self-identify as a nerd. I like it when learning something is difficult; and when I see a puzzle I feel compelled to try to solve it. I'm very literal, and I'm only satisfied with an abstract conversation when it's anchored in observable phenomena. I crave specifics, and as both a learner and as a teacher I sometimes don't see the forest because I'm busy inspecting the trees. 

Evans did not like the lack of rigor and problem solving, and that combined with her love of learning (not teaching?) and self-identified nerd line make me wonder how good a risk she was for teaching at that point in her career. I've had more than one student teacher who came from a strong classroom background, but who didn't really want to be a teacher-- he just wanted to be the smartest kid in a classroom.

But Evans was young at that point, and I have thought more than a few times (especially reflecting on my own shortcomings as a beginning teacher) that it might be a good idea not to start training teachers until they've logged a few years in the world.

We don't really know how "easy" programs are. NCTQ did some faux research in which they looked through college commencement programs, and there have been attempts to correlate teacher candidate SAT scores, but really, who are we kidding? This is not research that means anything at all. And yet, put a group of teachers together and start them talking about their own training, or the training of student teachers they've mentored, and you'll hear plenty of anecdotal data to suggest that college teacher programs are mostly not setting the world on fire.

See, I can quibble about how Evans arrives at her answer, but I agree that college teacher training programs are, at best, a mixed bag, and at the bottom of that bag are some truly useless programs. Talking about "hard" or "easy" is really beside the point; we'd be better off talking about useful or useless, and some teacher prep programs really are useless. Some programs involved a lot of hoop jumping and elaborate lesson planning techniques that will never, ever be used in the field; this kind of thing is arguably rigorous and challenging, but it's of no earthly use to actual teachers.

It may be that the professors are simply too far removed from actual classrooms, that they dispense untested or impractical theories, or it could be that they adhere too slavishly to the fad/mandate of the day. In PA, teacher programs routinely instruct teachers to get ideas and support from the state-run website that has absolutely nothing useful at all on it. And some of the more subtle damage done by Common Core has been done in college classrooms, teaching future teachers that they must use CCSS as a template for lessons. And I think pretty much everyone who ever sat in an education course has had this experience described by Evans:

Too often I've come to the end of an education class and had practical questions about how the theory I learned was supposed to guide day-to-day interactions with my students.

Also problematic-- while education majors are taking multiple ed courses of debatable usefulness, they are not taking courses in the field which they will teach. I can't tell you how many student teachers have shown up in my classroom with nothing but the same content knowledge they had when they left high school.

In general, I think Evans is talking about a problem that is a Real Thing. But when she gets into diagnosis and prescription, I think she loses her way.

So how did we end up with this issue?

Evans offers an explanation that I'm not sure I've ever seen before, but her education was at an ivy league (Dartmouth?) and only a decade ago, so we definitely come from different places. At any rate, one of her theories is that education courses have low status at highly competitive schools. So students don't take ed courses because it's just not cool for a future Master of the Universe.

Okay, fair enough. Teaching has been hammered as teachers are publicly berated for every imaginable offense and blamed for every societal ill. Pay has not kept pace with similar professions, but perhaps more significantly, teaching has also lost much of its autonomy. Today's college students are the ones who have seen teachers serve as nothing but glorified clerks and content delivery specialists. And as the talent pool dries up, it's only natural that colleges will try harder and open their doors wider in an attempt to keep these departments afloat.

When Evans complains about courses that treat her like a child, I sympathize. I also think that getting used to such treatment is probably well-aligned with what professionals can expect. Teachers are treated like children, by PD presenters, by administrators, by legislators and policymakers. I'm not saying I like it or approve of it. But it didn't appear in education courses randomly, and it's not unconnected to what teaching professionals can expect.

What do we do?

Evans does not offer much by way of ideas for making things better, and that's fine-- a blog can only run so long.

It's time for university departments of education to practice what they preach, and consider whether their programs meet the needs of different types of learners. Teachers deserve coursework that challenges and engages them, and the education system as a whole would benefit from higher standards for pedagogical instruction.

Again, we're solving the wrong problem. We don't need to insure that education coursework is more challenging and rewarding for the students who enroll in it; we need to insure that education coursework provides solid preparation for the future teachers who enroll in it. She ends with this line:

Take it from a nerd: when people who love learning don't find it remotely appealing to study education, something's wrong.

I'm not sure that's true. I'm more concerned that future teachers don't find it helpful to study education, including help in making the transition from thinking of yourself as a learner to thinking of yourself as a teacher.  

Now, as it turns out, I have some pretty clear ideas about how to train teachers and fix teacher programs. But I'm going to put that in a sequel to this post. If you want my answer to "How do we fix education departments," just follow the link.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that the best preparation for teaching, certainly at the high school level, is to have an undergraduate major in the field and have the teaching degree as a graduate degree.

    On the question of easy or hard, it appears that education schools have a different grading philosophy from the rest of the university. From the data I have seen, education schools have by far the highest average grade point in a class, engineering schools the lowest, with the rest of the departments/schools uniformly distributed between the two.