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.

A few days ago, I ran into a student whom I hadn’t seen since the first day of class. With a slightly embarrassed smile, he told me that he had dropped my course.

“Too much work,” he grinned. “I thought education classes were supposed to be guts.”

Alas, he’s right. A “gut” is an easy course, and ed school courses are guts, for the most part. That’s also the part we omit from our debate on teacher preparation, which focuses largely on the “skills” that future instructors need – and pays little attention to their intellectual development.

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Consider the recent dust-up over U.S. News and World Report’s plan to assign A through F grades to all 1,400 teaching colleges in America. Partnering with the National Council on Teacher Quality, the magazine announced that it would evaluate ed schools on 17 different standards – including student teaching, instruction about reading methods, and preparation for working with second-language English learners.

The impending evaluation sparked outrage in education schools, where over 35 deans, presidents, and directors signed a letter of protest to the magazine. The methodology of the U.S. News study was flawed, the ed school leaders said, because it lacked clear criteria for its standards as well as reliable ways to judge whether ed schools have met them. Worst of all, critics said, the evaluation didn’t assess how well people taught after completing their degrees.

A few days later, U.S. News and World Report shot back with a memo that detailed its grading criteria. It also pledged to build in so-called “value-added” approaches, which use student test scores to evaluate teachers’ effectiveness.

The elephant in the room

But nobody in this debate made any mention of the great elephant in the room: Ed school courses are too easy. No matter what we call these classes – or what teaching skills they transmit – they don’t challenge students’ intellects as much as other courses do.

And now we have the data to prove it. According to “Academically Adrift,” a new book by my New York University colleague Richard Arum and the University of Virginia’s Josipa Roksa, just 45 percent of students in education and social work reported taking a course in the previous semester requiring more than 20 pages of writing, while 61 percent took a class with more than 40 pages of reading per week. By comparison, 68 percent of social science and humanities students took a class with 20 pages of writing, and 88 percent had a class with 40 pages of weekly reading.

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.

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.

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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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