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Opinion

Why the weak students end up as teachers: Education programs lack intellect.

Education courses don’t challenge students’ intellects as much as others do, research shows in the new book "Academically Adrift." That's a problem not just for these students, but the students they will teach. It's time to reclaim education as serious intellectual endeavor.

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So it shouldn’t surprise us that students in education and social work reported studying less, too: 10.6 hours per week, as opposed to 12.4 hours in the social sciences and the humanities. The hardest workers are science and math majors, who study 14.7 hours a week.

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Nor should we be surprised that education students show significantly lower gains than these other groups during their undergraduate careers on the College Learning Assessment (CLA), an essay-only test measuring complex reasoning and written expression. As ed schools should be the first to acknowledge, the only way to cultivate these higher-order skills is to practice them. And our students appear to do that less than most other undergraduates.

Teaching skills isn't enough

Instead, as the U.S. News and World Report controversy illustrates, we emphasize the practical skills they will need in their own classrooms. How do you write a lesson plan? How do you teach long division? And how can you manage 25 or 30 rambunctious young minds, all demanding your immediate attention?

That’s all fine and good, but it isn’t enough. We also need to develop our future teachers’ own minds, by holding them to the same intellectual standards as other college students. Their so-called methods courses would be much richer if we asked them to read and write about the key dilemmas in their fields. And they should also take more classes outside of the ed-school, where intellectual requirements are already higher.

Would that make them “better” teachers? I’d like to say yes. Surely, though, it would make them more complex, curious, and contemplative human beings. There is nothing in the world more inherently fascinating than education. But ed schools have made it boring, by stripping it of its intellectual edge – and by letting our students slide along.

The students know it, too. That’s why weaker ones flock to the subject – and the more able ones stay away. In each of the past four decades, as my colleague Sean Corcoran has shown, a declining fraction of America’s top college students have chosen to become educators. If we want to reverse that trend, we’ll have to make teacher-preparation programs challenging enough to lure these students back in.

Top 10 benefits of a college degree

And that brings us back to the jovial young man I encountered the other day, who thought ed-school courses were supposed to be “guts.” That’s a kick in the gut, to anyone who cares about the American future, let alone the future of education. It’s time to get up off the floor, dust ourselves off, and reclaim education as serious intellectual endeavor. Anything less will yield more of the same.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”

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