Greg Forster, Ph.D. | April 20, 2018

Who teaches the teachers?

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

This article was published in OCPA's Perspective magazine View Issue

The ongoing ruckus in Oklahoma over an alleged teacher shortage raises the question of how we can improve teacher education to provide more high-quality teachers. Unfortunately, education curricula have long been mired in ideological claptrap that doesn’t actually produce better teachers. While we can be thankful that sitting through years of agitprop indoctrination seems to leave little lasting impression on most teachers, we ought to be seeking ways to circumvent the ed-school roadblock and train teachers better.

The real problem is not a teacher shortage. A 2015 study by the state department of education and other state agencies found teacher supply and demand to be almost perfectly balanced. Baylee Butler and Byron Schlomach of the 1889 Institute have pointed out that the data in that study show a supply/demand gap so small it would vanish if Oklahoma's average class size changed from 16.3 students to 16.4 students. The alternative certifications that do occur in Oklahoma have been misleadingly labeled “emergency” certifications, but the only emergency in sight is a teacher-certification system so deeply dysfunctional that lots of schools have to find ways around it.

In Oklahoma as elsewhere, the real problem is teacher quality. Education schools consistently have the weakest academic scores of all professional schools. The education reform movement figured out more than a decade ago that raising teacher quality is key to improving education.

But raising teacher quality is tough. Barriers to entry, like dysfunctional certification systems and artificially standardized union pay scales, prevent a lot of people who would make great teachers from getting into the profession. These barriers persist because they benefit teachers’ unions and other education special interests, whose position inside the system is much more profitable when it is harder for newcomers to enter.

One of the biggest barriers to entry in the teaching profession is education school. If I’m a recent college graduate, going into teaching rather than some other line of work means facing additional years of postgraduate education. While teachers don’t always have to have a master’s degree, it’s often necessary to maintain ongoing licensing, to be a competitive job candidate, or to move up the union pay scale.

The time and work involved are only one part of the problem. Two years of full-time study, or an equivalent amount of work squeezed into evenings and weekends part-time, would be a major obligation under any circumstances. But just as big an obstacle is the knowledge that in education school you’ll have to sit through endless ideological indoctrination, and the whole experience will be of little value to you as a teacher.

That last sentence may come as a shock. It doesn’t to people who have followed the issue. For decades, education schools have been notorious as agitprop factories, and study after study has found no relationship between teacher training and educational outcomes.

I would be tempted to say the apparent bankruptcy of teacher education has been a major scandal in the field for decades. But in fact, this has been so widely understood for so long that among anyone who knows anything about education policy research, it has long since ceased to scandalize. “Ed schools are educationally worthless” is about as shocking to education researchers as “smoking causes cancer.”

Arne Duncan, the Obama administration education secretary, said in 2009 that “by almost any standard, many if not most of the nation’s 1,450 schools, colleges, and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st-century classroom.” He said education schools are “cash cows,” and he’s right. Teachers who need credentials are hostages to the ed school system, so universities create ed schools in order to collect the ransom money.

Speaking at Teachers College, the nation’s premier education school, Duncan said he had heard from hundreds of teachers whose ed school training didn’t prepare them with practical skills for the classroom. Think Duncan is making that up? Research by Arthur Levine, a former Teachers College president, found that 60 percent of teachers agree they didn’t learn how to teach in ed school.

So if education schools aren’t teaching people how to teach, what are they teaching instead? Peruse the course catalog of any major education school, or read the Twitter feeds of the professors. You’ll find yourself swimming in an ocean of hard-left ideology: “critical theory” that says there is no truth, only power; “intersectionality” that says you’re not allowed to be right about anything unless you’re right (that is, left) about everything; cheerleading for every fashionable left-leaning cause.

Think it would never happen in a state like Oklahoma? Gregg Garn, the dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Education, lists “politics of education” as his first area of research interest. On his web page, a document full of left-wing political and policy posturing is listed more prominently than his curriculum vitae. I suppose since education schools seem to exist for political propaganda, it’s fair enough that he considers his political platform a more relevant credential to establish his qualifications than his academic track record.

I opened the college’s official Twitter feed on a random day. In the previous week, I found tweets advertising four events: Two of them were a lecture on “environmental moral reasoning and sociomoral reasoning” and a “social justice in education symposium.” The week before that, it turns out, was “social justice in education week,” which occupied not only that week’s worth of the feed but also the week before it in ramp-up advertising. (By contrast, a speech by an expert on improving outcomes for special education students got only one tweet—after it was over.) What came before that? An ad for LGBTQ scholarships.

The central concept in the ideology that rules education schools, with an iron fist, is that real pedagogy means the liberation of the oppressed. The idea is that good education is primarily a tool of political liberation. Therefore, if you want to teach people how to educate, teach them how to liberate. With that as a starting point, the actual teaching part goes out the window, and it’s off to the races with every nutty political fad that comes along.

I’m the first to agree that access to a good education liberates people, the oppressed most of all. Good education does result in the suppression of racism, misogyny, and exploitation. But it only does so if we don’t define “education” as “liberating the oppressed.” Education liberates people when it helps them know and enjoy the good, true, and beautiful things in life—the transcendent things.

When education has no goal higher than political liberation, it loses touch with the transcendent. Thus it becomes captive to self-referential ideological humbug, which it needs to fill the void. And that’s not liberating, it’s just indoctrination—a new form of oppression.

That is the very reason our education schools have in fact become captive to self-referential ideological humbug. Schools aren’t allowed to ground education in transcendent things. Because we have a government school monopoly that forces children from all religions and worldviews into the same schools without their parents’ choice, schools have to aspire to be “neutral” about the deep questions of the meaning and purpose of life.

And, of course, it is impossible in the real world to be neutral about such questions. So the absence of transcendent answers just leaves the education schools chasing their tails in a highly politicized circle. Liberation means left-wingery because left-wingery means liberation. (The same kind of irresponsible merry-go-round also develops on the political right where transcendent things are forgotten, and thus freedom means right-wingery because right-wingery means freedom; they just don’t happen to control the education schools.)

The good news is that the extremist ideologies of the education schools don’t appear to have much effect on education. Surveys show teachers have political views not much different from those of the general population on most topics. Future teachers seem to pass through the education schools well aware of what nonsense it all is. Presumably they do the same thing liberal arts undergraduates do, parroting their professors’ views back to them just long enough to secure a good grade and graduate.

The bad news is that education schools also don’t have much effect on education when it comes to producing quality teachers. And they have more than enough political power to defend their turf. Reforming education schools is, in most cases, a fool’s errand.

One way around them is alternative forms of certification. Although Oklahoma gets a lot of teachers through alternative routes, it doesn’t look like this is being pursued in a systematic way as an end run around the ed schools. It could be.

State data collected by Baylee Butler and Byron Schlomach of the 1889 Institute show that the distribution of specialties among teachers receiving alternative certifications in Oklahoma doesn’t align much with the areas where barriers to entry in the teaching profession are generally the highest (such as math and science, or secondary-school specializations). Schools sick and tired of scraping the barrel for math teachers might start looking more intentionally at alternative certification routes. State lawmakers could make that easier for them by relaxing certification laws.

In the long run, however, the only large-scale alternative is school choice. One of the main reasons school choice programs consistently produce improved academic outcomes is because schools of choice are free to hire and fire teachers on their own. They don’t have to scramble to find alternate routes to the classroom, or sit back and learn to live with whatever the ed schools produce. (This is not unrelated to the fact that schools of choice are also allowed to know what they believe about the meaning of life and the ultimate ends of education.)

That’s why education schools are so vehemently against the growth of school choice. They know it breaks their monopoly. That’s tough on them, but maybe they should have thought about that before letting their curricula slide into an unproductive ideological Never-Never Land.

Greg Forster, Ph.D.


Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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