Message to Ed Schools: Practice What You Teach

Ashley Thorne

“If you want to be a journalist, don’t major in journalism.” When I attended the bootcamp-esque World Journalism Institute as an undergraduate, I remember WJI director Bob Case emphasizing this point. He wisely said that future journalists should study history or political science or economics, and then, having learned subjects of substance, they will have something meaningful to say. Journalism students, he said, may know how to construct an article, but if all they know is journalism, their work is destined to be shallow.  Facts need to be reported in context, and that’s what the study of the liberal arts provides. 

In an op-ed in the New York Times this week, Susan Engel says the same thing about education students. Engel, a “senior lecturer in psychology and the director of the teaching program at WilliamsCollege,” deplores the paradox that education schools are among the least academically rigorous components of the university.  Ed schools graduate ill-prepared students: “Our best universities have...typically looked down their noses at education, as if that were intellectually inferior.”  

She sets out a plan for reforming teacher education. Her most important point is that ed students must study the subjects they intend to teach. It sounds basic, but in fact, as Engel writes, “Too often, teaching students spend their time studying specific instructional programs and learning how to handle mechanics like making lesson plans.” In addition, Engel prescribes that like medical students and junior therapists, teachers should be trained under close supervision and collaboration with mentors. 

Engel’s two other ambitious ideas for fixing ed schools are to “give as many public schools as possible the financial incentives to hire these newly prepared teachers in groups of seven or more” and to foster “teaching programs that are as rich in resources, interesting, high-reaching and thoughtful as the young people we want to attract.”  

These are well meaning suggestions for ameliorating the problem. If adopted they would leave the ed school system in place but bump it up to something more educationally serious.  In that sense, Engel’s proposal runs counter to what many other critics have called for:  the abolition of the ed school system altogether. Could Engel’s style reform –make the would-be teachers study the subjects they will teach; improve supervision of fledgling teachers; fund schools to hire new teachers in cohorts; endow programs with lots of money—really turn these cul-de-sacs of mediocrity into runways of academic excellence?  It sounds a little far-fetched.   

But let’s give Engel the benefit of the doubt. I made a visit to the website of Engel’s own teaching program at Williams and was pleasantly surprised. The program does not offer a major or minor but “seeks to promote and facilitate an exchange of ideas about teachers, learners, and schools, within and beyond the Williams campus.” If students want to gain teacher certification, they must complete both the Williams program and a post-BA semester of teaching practicum through the nearby Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.  

The wholesome-looking Williams teacher program actually revolves around core liberal arts subjects: “we want students to be deeply immersed in their course of studies so they will have something to teach.” So perhaps some of Professor Engel’s hopes of creating a culture of discipline-based teacher education are founded in reality after all.    

The Williams program is thoroughly Engel-esque, combining her specializations of education and psychology—the three required courses are PSYC 272: Psychology of Education, PSYC 336: Adolescence, and PSYC 372: Advanced Seminar in Teaching and Learning. Unfortunately the program also includes some identity-group-inspired courses such as “Latinos and Education—The Politics of Schooling, Language, and Latino Studies” and “Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination.” The story of plagiarism and a noose concerning former ColumbiaTeachers College professor Madonna Constantine illustrates why such politicized teaching breeds an unhealthy emphasis on grievance.   

The presence of this sort of identity politics in the Williams program underscores the problem of trying to reform ed schools.  They are so saturated with unwise pedagogical assumptions that through long-use and familiarity have become invisible to the faculty that it seems nearly impossible for even the best-intentioned reformers to think their way outside the meretricious ideas that compromise the mission.   

For example, two years ago Howard Zinn published a children’s version of his notorious oppression-themed history textbook. A Young People’s History of the United States, intended for middle school classrooms, is on reading lists at education schools at the University of North Carolina, George Fox University, Syracuse University, and Binghamton University. At Binghamton, the object is to emphasize a “constructivist approach to the teaching of social studies.” At UNC, the goal is to promote “equity,” defined as “the state, quality, or ideal of social justice and fairness” that acknowledges “the unequal treatment of those who have been historically discriminated against.” 

But teaching history from this skewed angled is perhaps just as bad as not teaching it at all. Ed schools should take Susan Engel’s advice about giving students a solid liberal education, but Engel fails to identify the main problem with teacher education. NAS has identified it: schools of education, perhaps because they are prone to lower intellectual standards, often make it their mission to brand students with a “social justice,” critical pedagogy, über-progressive outlook. In “The Negative Influence of Education Schools on the K-12 Curriculum,” NAS board member Sandra Stotsky reports on the anti-civic, anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-marriage, and anti-family themes that education schools propagate, and the damage that these messages inflicts on K-12 learning. 

So yes, teachers-in-training should learn something before they begin teaching. But they should not learn just anything—they should study the true tenets of our civilizational heritage, read the Great Books, grapple with problems of enduring significance. Only then will America’s teachers inherit the intellectual legacy they should have been bequeathing to students all along.


To read more about NAS’s work regarding schools of education, see: 

Accreditation and Politics” 11/02/05 Inside Higher Ed

NCATE Drops ‘Social Justice’ as Accreditation Standard” 06/05/06 Press release

Disposed to Mischief” 01/13/08 by Glenn Ricketts

The Negative Influence of Education Schools on the K-12 Curriculum” 06/30/08 by Sandra Stotsky

Bias Isn’t Bias If It’s Ours” 02/18/09 by Peter Wood

An Opinionated Pragmatist Survives Stanford” 07/25/09 by Michele Kerr

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