Should education courses be a primary focus of a teacher education program?


As the director of a Michigan teacher education program, I am uniquely qualified to declare-although fully aware of the surprise it may engender-that education courses should not be a primary focus of teacher education programs.

Of course, it behooves elementary school teachers to know the proven methods for teaching children to read. It is especially in the best interest of middle school teachers to be well prepared in classroom management. And few high school teachers would underrate the academic effectiveness of being able to teach using a variety of methods. Those who argue against the need for such basics have either never taught a full class of other people's children for any significant amount of time or they have done so with a clearly revealed need for improvement.

But if the subject matter being taught is not one in which the teacher is expert-something for which the teacher cherishes a love and a passion in his or her heart-no amount of expertise in teaching methods can make up for this defect. In other words, a teacher education program, while necessary, is only a supplement to the kind of intensive academic preparation that engages intellectual interest and enthusiasm.

Some educators have suggested that teachers need to know only their subject matter up to the level at which they teach, and that this leaves room for greater "professional development" in teaching methods. Besides being impractical, this idea betrays a complete lack of understanding of the nature of knowledge and the teaching relationship.

For starters, because so many teachers are needed and in short supply in relation to their demand, the State of Michigan, like other states, issues teaching certificates for various ranges of grades, requiring more than one-grade's-range worth of expertise per teacher. But even more important, as any great teacher knows, to simply regurgitate the set of facts their students are expected to know from a well that is thus run dry is simply recitation, has no life in it, and will justifiably bore students. A true teacher is one who puts facts together themselves and relates them to and contrasts them with one another, out of a personal, living reservoir of knowledge that can never be too full, but can easily be too meager.

If a Michigan teacher is deemed by the State Department of Education fully qualified to teach seventh through 12th grade history, a superintendent has every right to expect that teacher to know and know well American history, ancient history, world history, eastern history, and the like-regardless of whether that teacher winds up teaching anything but U.S. history, for example. As any serious historian will tell you, a proper understanding of one part of history implies an understanding of how to relate that part to the others, and all of the parts to the whole.

Promises by ill-prepared teachers of always staying "one day ahead of the kids" should be unacceptable to principals and superintendents and are certainly unacceptable to the parents of children in school. As for the children themselves, it doesn't take them very long to figure out when a teacher has reached the limits of his or her academic knowledge.

In the state of Michigan, teachers of kindergarten through eighth grade and seventh through 12th grade cannot be certified without first passing at least two subject-area tests. But this is not the same thing as being required to take courses pertaining to one's subject area. How much subject area content can any one test cover? My answer is very little in comparison with that which can be covered in a liberal arts course, to say nothing of two or three courses-or 10.

Every additional education course on a graduate's transcript replaces what could have been learned in a liberal arts course never taken. If future teachers had unlimited time and funds to take unlimited numbers of courses, then some otherwise unnecessary education courses might be interesting or amusing. But who will seriously argue that before they can be certified, teachers ought to be required to take "Feminist Analyses of Education in the United States," "Human Diversity, Power, and Opportunity in Social Institutions," and similar courses (culled from education course catalogues from Michigan and another state), courses of a type roundly criticized as being more about politics than teaching technique?

Parents and school boards count on superintendents and principals to hire teachers who know about classroom management, human development and teaching. But these skills can be taught, learned and practiced by mastering a small number of courses. The education establishment does itself and students a disservice when they use professional development as an excuse to impose unnecessary requirements on the teaching profession.

And they exacerbate an already deepening shortage of teachers.

Robert C. Hanna, Ph.D., is director of teacher education and an associate professor of education at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.