Frivolous, Trendy Teacher Training In Michigan

On March 13, The Detroit News published a curious article by reporter Tony Manolatos, exposing the fact that an instructor at Michigan State University, Melissa D. Hasbrook, was offering extra credit to her students for attending rallies protesting the coming war with Iraq.

Ms. Hasbrook was sophisticated enough to recognize the realities of the situation and made clear to students that her offer was open to those who attended “pro-war” rallies as well, although Gisgie Gendreau, a spokeswoman for the university, told the News that “she didn’t know of any.”

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The article was curious in that, while the paper’s very reporting of the matter as “news” assumes that there might be something objectionable about such practices, it’s tone is one of praise, and quotes no one objecting to blatant politicizing of the curriculum at a respected university. The assumption implicit in the reporting of this matter – that there might be legitimate objections to partisan political stands being offered as course material – is correct.

In 1996, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy published “Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities” by Thomas F. Bertonneau, then an English instructor for Central Michigan University, and well-known critic of the very sort of teacher training he says “emphasize emotion and subjectivity over rigor.” The result, he says, is that “Students in teacher education courses, who have not learned very much because of faulty instruction, take faulty instruction methods to their own teaching careers. They do not learn how to teach well.”

In his summary of the study’s findings, Beretonneau clarifies his point: “A preference for trivia is also part of the problem in today’s teacher education courses. The curricula offered by university education departments are heavy on fuzzy ‘self-awareness,’ ‘multicultural,’ and other faddish or politicized material, and light on the hard knowledge of the subjects that teachers must eventually teach. One assignment, offered as a model to teaching assistants at CMU, asked students to watch and discuss TV talk shows like “Oprah” and “Montel” for two weeks of a 15-week semester.”

The course in which students could receive university credit for taking the stand favored by the educational establishment at Michigan State was Teacher Education 250 or Human Diversity, Power and Opportunity in Social Institutions. The three-credit class is taken mostly by sophomores who want to become teachers. This very course was singled out by Bertonneau as a perfect example of the kind of frivolous, and ultimately profitless, courses Michigan’s teacher candidates are subjected to as part of their preparation for the classroom.

Bertonneau only needs to directly quote Michigan State’s course catalogue to make his point. “Using catch words from the theoretical discourse which one encounters frequently today in schools of education,” he writes, “TE 250 aims at a ‘comparative study of schools and other social institutions,’ and includes material on the ‘social construction maintenance of diversity and inequality [sic],’ and ‘political and social consequences for individuals and groups.’”

What sorts of teachers – and students – does such “instruction” produce?

Bertonneau needs only quote the same newspaper only months before publication of his study: “The deterioration of teacher training has been closely linked with the erosion of a solid core curriculum in the state universities of Michigan. In January 1995, The Detroit News reported on its front page that ‘there is trouble at the head of Michigan's classrooms, and it may get worse before it improves.’ Remarkably, one-third of the prospective geography and health teachers ‘flunked their certification tests,’ and ‘those taking biology and history exams fared only slightly better.’ The article noted that ‘while nearly all passed a basic skills test in reading, writing and math,’ the test is ‘so easy that it gives the public no assurance of any level of competency.’ In September 1996, The Detroit News again reported that ‘many Michigan teachers are not qualified to teach the subjects that they are assigned.’ In a related story, the same newspaper reported how large numbers of Michigan high school students, taking the newly instated academic proficiency test, failed to demonstrate their academic proficiency.”

It is significant that Professor Hasbrook declined to comment, even for an article that treated favorably her teaching practices. What is far more significant, however, is that while tenured professors are permitted to indulge their political whims at the expense of their unsuspecting students, Michigan’s K-12 children are being shortchanged.

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Samuel Walker is a communications specialist at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute.