V. Teacher Training Fails to Make the Grade

The simplest definition of a teacher is that he or she is someone who knows something sufficiently well to teach it to someone else. On the basis of this simple definition and referring to the argument so far, it is possible that college students intending to becometeachers might be under prepared for the task. The most fundamental of courses, freshman composition, no longer serves to establish higher literacy among entering college students, and the core curriculum, whereby students became cultured in the broad sense, has been abolished in favor of proliferating specialty courses. What does teacher training do to prepare students electing an education major? The answer seems to be—very little. This chapter argues that teacher education is affected by the same theories and instruction methods that have led to the decline of freshman composition and the core curriculum. 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.

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.”[113] In September 1996, The Detroit News again reported that “many Michigan teachers are not qualified to teach the subjects that they are assigned.”[114] 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.[115]

There is a discrepancy between the way schools of education represent themselves and the performance of their graduates. Many Michigan teachers (in the vast majority of cases through no fault of their own) lack basic knowledge. This reflects, in part, the disappearance of knowledge from the general curriculum but also, in part, the deterioration of teacher-training curricula.

In a paper presented at the meeting of the Michigan Academy in 1995, Robert Money of Lake Superior State University reminded his listeners that, one hundred years ago, the knowledge associated with being a teacher might be recorded briefly in two or three pages of front matter in a good grammar book.[116] This did not indicate a lack of sophistication, as indicated by expectations implicit in nineteenth century textbooks.[117] In its very brevity, nineteenth century teacher training got it right. What was important was that the teacher should know something about the subjects being taught. Today, the assumption seems to be that teachers are not qualified until they have completed a lengthy and complex program of teacher-training and education theory courses. To finish their program in a timely manner, prospective teachers often opt out of taking more substantial courses in their major area(s) of study.

“As for the value of education courses and degrees in the actual teaching of schoolchildren,” writes Thomas Sowell in Inside American Education, “there is no persuasive evidence that such studies have any pay-off whatever in the classroom.”[118]

Michigan State University’s course catalog lists a typical array of education courses. Using catch words from the theoretical discourse which one encounters frequently today in schools of education, the catalog describes Teacher Education 150, “Reflections on Learning,” as a course which focuses on “students’ experiences as learners in comparison with psychological, sociological, and anthropological theories and assumptions about learning and teaching in and out of school.” TE 250, “Human Diversity, Power, and Opportunity in Social Institutions,” 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.” TE 322, “Methods of Teaching,” promises guidance in the “selection of instructional techniques based on teacher values and belief systems, and learner needs and characteristics.” And TE 401, “Teaching of Subject Matter to Diverse Learners,” encourages pupils to “construct subject-specific meanings.”[119]

Central Michigan University’s course catalog likewise diverts prospective teachers from substantive subjects. Its description of Education and Health Sciences 101, “Career and Self-Exploration,” consists of cliches drawn from popular psychology. The course places emphasis on the development of “self-awareness, career awareness, and academic awareness leading to a comprehensive career plan.” The widespread self-esteem movement has clearly influenced this course, as the emphasis on “self” indicates. EHS 102, “Academic Learning Skills,” “provides information, materials and practice to assist students in improving study skills.” EHS 103 concerns “reading skills.” These two courses might be substantive, but given the close affiliation between schools of education and English departments, and the ambiguous ways in which English departments now define literacy and competency, a high degree of substance cannot be assumed. (See the discussion of reading and writing textbooks below.) And out of proportion to its relative importance to teacher training, the course listings under Secondary Education include four separate courses devoted to driver training in the high schools.[120]

This sampling gives an idea of what the schools of education offer. What is the meaning of this “educationese”?

The conclusion that may be drawn is that the prospective teachers of our children appear not to be encouraged to acquire deep and substantive knowledge. Rigorous content in the traditional liberal arts is rejected in favor of the cultivation of personal impression, emotion, opinion, and other subjective states. The focus on the self, on the subjectivity of the prospective teacher, is striking. Is there a connection between education studies and the performance of Michigan teachers on accreditation exams? It would be surprising if there were not a connection.

The course description of Michigan State’s TE 322, for example, suggests that the teacher’s “values and belief systems” (whatever those might be) should play a role in “the selection of instructional techniques.” Central Michigan’s EHS 101 is apparently devoted to “self-exploration.” The course description suggests both a troubling emphasis on egocentrism and an adherence to the cultural relativism typical of the postmodern curriculum. (Cultural relativism is the theory that all moral values are equal and interchangeable; cultural relativism is one of the assumptions both of multiculturalism and diversity.) That curriculum has been disastrous for recent generations of college students, as argued by Sowell and Cheney and as suggested by the facts reported in Recruiting Trends and Learning by Degrees. Those students have not achieved the intellectual performance levels of previous generations.

Michigan State’s TE 401 suggests the doctrine of “constructivism,” which claims that knowledge is not objective, to be found by a careful investigation of an actually existing external world, but subjective, or made up by every individual according to his or her putatively unique needs, and susceptible to whimsical alteration. Constructivist themes often seem to be combined with Marxist themes in contemporary education discourse, so that the existing social system is described as an oppressive construction in whose deconstruction teachers will need to participate.

Furthermore, the terms “diverse,” “diversity,” “ethnic,” multi-ethnic,” and “multicultural” appear in school of education course descriptions frequently and in apparently arbitrary contexts. This is a sign of what Thomas Sowell identifies as the school of education’s extraordinary “susceptibility to fads, especially to nonintellectual and anti-intellectual fads.”[121]

Additional evidence of the apparent affinity for “nonintellectual fads” comes from a memorandum describing the rationale and structure of a proposed CMU course listed as Elementary Education 305, “Issues in Multicultural Education.” The “rationale” that accompanies the description of the course contains biased assumptions: “The importance of preparing future generations for a multicultural world is increasing. Due to the rapid growth of diversity within the United States, it is essential that educators provide learners with reflective experiences for life in a multicultural society. In so doing, it is important to enhance their multicultural skills [etc.].”[122] (Compare the similarity of the language in this description to that in the Michigan Academy paper on “Enfleshment” cited in chapter 2. The presumptions in both are identical.)

None of these statements is verifiable. They appear to be a subjective judgment expressed in dogmatic language designed to appear as though the subject matter of the course is the result of some experiential or scientific or clinical consensus. The course syllabus stipulates one purpose of ELE 305 would be the development of “attitudes, values, and behavior supportive of cultural diversity, differences, and the welfare of society.” The designers of this particular course do not seem to view multiculturalism or multicultural education as an issue, as something to be debated. They appear to see it as a dogma which teachers-in-training must support, regardless of its merits. The bibliography attached to the syllabus makes it apparent that students will have little opportunity to inform themselves about criticism of multiculturalism. A one-page article by columnist John Leo is the only identifiably critical piece in the three pages of single spaced references. The course would be less susceptible to charges of propaganda if it was balanced by another course in which deficiencies and limitations of multiculturalism could be rigorously studied. No such course exists and there is little incentive for existing faculty to propose one.

Lack of balance in course content has extended beyond special courses into the totality of course offerings. The same assertions turn up, for example, in Johnson, Dupuis, Musial, and Hall’s The Foundations of American Education, a widely used textbook for the entry level school of education course on Michigan campuses. The book tells prospective teachers that the “melting-pot” theory of cultural assimilation is “inappropriate” for today’s schools; “institutional racism abounds;” and “multicultural education absolutely must address the significance of pluralism and group heritages.”[123] The emphasis on groups and on collective values echoes Marxist themes. The Foundations devotes much space to subjects like “group heritages,” but never discusses the centrality of the individual to the ethics of the Western tradition.

The Johnson, Dupuis, Musial, and Hall textbook is a compendium, to use Sowell’s term, of politically correct nonintellectual fads. In the complex jargon of education rhetoric, this textbook rehearses the ideological positions that would-be teachers must apparently endorse as the bona fides of their profession. An example of how the teacher education system pushes students into espousing such positions is the entrance examination for the School of Education at CMU; students have been refused entry to the school because they failed to give what amount to politically acceptable responses during the examination.[124]

The index of The Foundations reveals multiple entries under “cultural bias in textbooks,” “cultural diversity,” “divergent thinking,” “dominant culture,” “racism,” “sexism,” and “self-concept of teachers,” but none under “knowledge.” A section titled “Reflections: Working against Cultural Bias in Textbooks” declares that “a vast number of textbooks currently used in American schools do not accurately reflect the cultural diversity of the United States” and goes on to list nine steps for recognizing “cultural bias in the forms of omission, distortion, and factual error” in prospective classroom reading assignments. But, as The Foundations defines “diversity” as a system of numerical representation based on skin color and ethnicity, its imputation of “bias” in school texts is itself biased.

The Orwellian implications of this “reflection” are hard to avoid. Nor can one easily escape the message: An important duty of school teachers is to act on behalf of politically correct ideologues as culture police.

The Foundations contains long passages on “self-esteem,” “grouping,” “tracking,” and other topics—tendentious in themselves or treated tendentiously. This book makes it clear to teachers-in-training that they will expend much effort in their role similar to that of a social worker. The book contains no explicit statement to the effect that teachers must be knowledgeable in areas outside education theory.[125]

Another widely used book, Martha Rapp Ruddell’s Teaching Content Reading and Writing, is aimed at teaching teachers-in-training how to instruct their future students in reading and writing. Ruddell advocates what she calls “writing across the curriculum,” which is concerned, she writes, “mainly with process . . . rather than [with] writing as a polished product.”[126] She is, in other words, advocating the implementation of the process approach in elementary and secondary schools—something which began a decade or more ago. As do many contemporary education experts, Ruddell consistently disparages traditional approaches to reading and writing. In doing so she ignores the fact that as educators have abandoned traditional approaches since the mid-1960s, the performance of college-bound high school graduates on the verbal SAT has consistently dropped. According to Ruddell:

Most secondary teachers have little knowledge or training in “phonics” or pronunciation rules, and very few have any interest in gaining such. Rightfully so: The days of attempting to teach adolescents to “Crack the Code” thankfully are long past. So, it is unreasonable to expect that middle school and secondary teachers are equipped to, or should, teach pronunciation rules and the like in their classrooms.[127]

But how can the teachers make this judgment if they do not know anything about the method here being rejected by Ruddell for them? This is an example of the biases that appear frequently in postmodern pedagogy. In effect, Ruddell is urging her readers to decide an issue without first acquiring knowledge about it. Is this really what the ancient art of teaching is about? Ruddell’s index is likewise revealing. There are multiple entries under “cooperative learning,” “diversity in the classroom,” “female studental needs of,” “gender differences,” “how schools shortchange girls,” “process writing,” “theoretical teacher,” and “whole language approach,” but none under competency or grammar. Although there are many entries involving the word “literacy,” Ruddell gives no definition of the term itself.

School of education course descriptions and widely used textbooks like The Foundations and Teaching Content Reading and Writing reveal a focus on fads, intellectually dubious ideas, and unjustified emphasis of trivial subjects like driver education and “media resources,” whose subject matter could probably be covered by a single short lecture or reading assignment. What such course descriptions and textbooks often label as “cognitive skills” are really forms of passive reliance on emotion and are therefore not cognitive in the traditional understanding of the term.

A recent book entitled Ed School Follies[128] confirms these inferences. Its author, Rita Kramer, spent a year visiting schools of education across the country. Kramer records that the attitudes identified by critics of contemporary teacher training like Sowell are ubiquitous, so much so that schools of education have become virtually indistinguishable from one another. Kramer visited two influential schools of education in Michigan, at Eastern Michigan University and at Michigan State University. There, as elsewhere in the country, Kramer discovered that education courses consisted in the main of preachments and sloganeering, with very little requirement that students demonstrate knowledge in core subjects. A disdain for knowledge among education theorists is one of the tragic themes of Kramer’s account.

At Michigan State University, an administrator of the College of Education explained to Kramer that the aim of the “Multiple Perspectives Program” of teacher education was “to foster personal and social responsibility, to learn to work with others in egalitarian ways, respecting diversity and integrating everyone for the future of our country. There has to be an emphasis on acquiring new information,” the administrator told Kramer, “not just absorbing the old, not a body of content, of facts.”[129]

The language of many of MSU’s Teacher Education course descriptions matches the administrator’s language. Classes cover such areas as “connections between schools and diversity, inequality, and power in society,” “cultural diversity in education,” “developing effective multicultural curricula for all students,” and “issues of teaching in schools with multinational student populations.”[130] The multicultural vocabulary is omnipresent and repetitious. In the “Action Research Seminar,” Kramer got the opportunity to witness a presentation given by the professor which contained “an overhead projection of a vast outline made up largely of phrases like ‘engaged-interactive.’’’[131] Kramer narrates the scene as follows:

The professor moves along the outline, repeating out loud what is there for the eye to see—“contributive strategies to norms of interaction” and “impact on learning context of second-order learning strategies,” which seem to mean (one can’t be sure) bringing things out in the open and clarifying what you think so it can be examined and tested. With each phrase he reads, he turns and looks at the class significantly.

[The students] know all the “right” words—“not motivated to learn . . . inhibition to writing . . . reluctant to answer.” They talk about the problem of “too much negative feedback.” How far away all this is from any body of learning, all this talk about the nature of the learning process, the relation of the learner to the learning community. What about what is being learned?[132]

In an Eastern Michigan University class called “The Social Aspects of Teaching,” Kramer attended a lecture titled “The Hidden Agenda.” The professor claimed, according to Kramer, that all education up until the (presumably enlightened) present has contained a “Hidden Agenda,” that is to say, a secret program of power whereby the rich manipulate culture to oppress the poor. An example of this, supplied by the professor, is the classic children’s story Tootle, about a train that tries to leave the track and ends up in trouble. The teacher supplied the students with an article from Harvard Education Review which submits this tale to an explicitly Marxist analysis:

In eighteen pages [passed out to the students in photocopy], the story is exhaustively [treated] as a “picture of society . . . meritocratic . . . a class system” which “works because responsible authorities make decisions and because everyone else follows the rules.” There’s a good bit about “the State . . . conspiracy . . . surveillance” and Tootle as “a worker, not a decision maker” who has “to stay in his place without question” and not “presume to choose his own course or destiny,” rewarded in the end for conforming to his manipulators.[133]

When one student questioned this lopsided interpretation, the professor cut her short for defending “meritocracy.”[134] When the class broke up, after a lengthy discussion during which it became clear that the students were resisting the professor’s view of reality, the professor remarked to Kramer with puzzlement on the “hostility”[135] that he seemed to inspire.

In a course on “Children’s Literature,” Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Ugly Duckling is treated similarly to Tootle. The professor impugns the story because after the duckling became a swan, he “never questioned the system, never tried to better the lot of the others, the lower classes, once he made it.”[136] When students raise questions about the teacher education system, their questions are too often unwanted or ignored or attacked as racist or reactionary. When students do reject overt political indoctrination or nonsensical material in the classroom, they are often insufficiently educated and too inarticulate to do so cogently, as Kramer shows. It is difficult for them to propose any alternative to the status quo.

What the education professors teach inevitably shows up in K-12 public schools. One of Michigan education theorists’ recent contributions to the public schools’ pedagogical repertoire is the “whole language” approach to reading instruction, which treats alphabetic writing in English as though it were ideographic writing in Chinese, and “invented spelling,” which effectively discourages children from learning the simple but invaluable skill of how to spell.[137]

Author James V. Hoffman wrote about the purpose of the “whole language” method in an article in Language Arts, the nationally circulated journal of classroom English teachers and English educationists:

Whole language is not so much about method or philosophy as it is about power. It is a movement about empowerment—about who makes decisions and on what basis. Literacy empowers societies. Literacy empowers individuals. The learner on the path to literacy is learning about that power. Teachers who are disempowered themselves as professionals cannot empower students as learners. Fragmented curricula, mastery learning, skills-based management systems, controlled vocabulary readers, criterion-references testing, and synthetic phonics are not the status quo because they produce better results than anything else. These features are in a prominent position, I believe, because they provide the educational system (i.e., the bureaucracy) with a mechanism to control what goes on in classrooms.[138]

This passage suggests that much of contemporary education theory results in tragic indifference to the needs of students. Hoffman’s focus on power and the empowerment of teachers suggests how motifs from Marxism tend to surface in the discourse of “cutting-edge” pedagogical theory. Concerning “fragmented curricula,” nothing fragments a curriculum like delinking reading and writing from the acquisition of grammar and other fundamentals. As columnist Joan Beck recently explained, in a Detroit Free Press opinion piece, one reason why the nation’s public schools produce such a disappointing level of student achievement is that education experts “have so complicated . . . reading . . . that they make it seem impossibly difficult.” Beck urges that children will master reading and writing quickly as long as they “are first taught the relationships between sounds and letters—phonics—in a way that stresses the joy of discovery and mastery.”[139]

Hoffman, as a “whole-language” apologist, fails to note that he is the bureaucracy about which he complains. He does not allow for the possibility that he and others with similar beliefs pose a danger because they use their position in the academy to impose narrow sectarian doctrines on the public schools without public referendum.

Michigan schools of education also produced the controversial Mandatory Academic Core Curriculum for the K-12 public schools. It was rejected by the Michigan State Board of Education because it was characterized by education bureaucracy jargon and substituted trendy theory for proven methods.[140]

But what gets rejected at the state level can still turn up in local school districts. An example comes from Isabella County. A story in the Isabella County Morning Sun (September 18, 1995) reported that the Mt. Pleasant public schools had teamed up with education faculty from Education and English at Central Michigan University to “implement new teaching methods and educational techniques.” Among these “methods and techniques,” according to the CMU professors who would supervise the program, were “cooperative learning,” “whole language approaches” to reading and writing, and the “implementing [of] multicultural units.” The Morning Sun headline labeled all of this as a plan “to innovate education.”

“Innovative” is an unfortunate word to describe the Mt. Pleasant/CMU project, which mimicks ideas that failed elsewhere. A few days before the Morning Sun article, a story appeared in the Los Angeles Times (September 13) detailing a state-sponsored assessment of California’s public schools. The authors of the California document urged a return to basics in the teaching of reading and other areas of the public school curriculum. “Labeling a nearly decade long experiment in progressive teaching methods a failure, a state task force . . . will call on California schools to resume teaching phonics, spelling and other basic reading skills,” the Times article said. The California report specifically addressed the “whole language approach” to the teaching of reading and writing, describing it as fundamentally erroneous in its assumptions about what literacy is and how children acquire it. More recently, acting on the report, the California legislature ordered the state’s public schools to ditch the discredited methods and return to a traditional, phonics-oriented, language instruction program.

The California report accords with the experience of school districts across the country that have adopted so-called innovative curricula, including “whole language,” only to discover that elementary school children as late as the fourth and fifth grades have not mastered even the rudiments of reading and writing and are, for practical purposes, functionally illiterate. This is what happened in Houston, which adopted a uniform “whole language” reading and writing curriculum in the late 1980s. In 1991, as reported in The Atlantic Monthly (December 1994), “eight elementary schools asked the school district to allow them to return to phonics-based instruction.”

If the officials of the Mt. Pleasant public schools knew of the facts about “innovative” curricula when they adopted them at the urging of the CMU professors, they remained unconvinced by them. Probably they were unaware of them, and the education professors did not disabuse them of their unawareness. The Isabella County victims of this are elementary and secondary school students who themselves have no say in what happens to their education. A story in the Isabella County Herald for September 18, 1996, a year after the inauguration of the “innovative” curriculum in Mt. Pleasant, reported that “less than half of area 11th graders” scored high enough on the verbal portion of Michigan’s new proficiency tests to pass. In Mt. Pleasant, according to the Herald, only 48.8% of 11th graders passed the reading portion of the test and only 43.5% passed the writing portion.

In 1994 the statewide Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests showed that students in the state’s public schools do poorly in basic skills like reading and math. So do their teachers,[141] but not likely through any fault of their own. Much of the blame seems to lie with their college instruction. Their college instruction is so impoverished in the area of fundamentals because they have little chance to learn methods other than the ones approved by their professors, and because of the demand that they take so many inconsequential courses which prevent them from devoting more time to their specialties such as English, history, or math. The 1996 tests showed no significant improvement. (A rise of only two percent in reading scores did occur among private school students, many of whom were taking the exams for the first time.)[142]

If all college students need to be better educated than they at present are, then this is no less true of would-be teachers. The nebulous content and questionable intellectual quality of many education courses appears to severely diminish teacher-preparedness. So does the deterioration of the traditional core curriculum. But the problem cannot be solved merely by having teachers take fewer education courses and sign up for more classes in the traditional liberal arts. Many of the literature and composition and history and foreign language departments are affected by the same theories that have damaged teacher education. Educational quality will hardly improve with quantity. Reform of a more fundamental sort is needed. The education that the state universities of Michigan offer will improve only when there is a true restoration of humane learning.