“Teachers Cannot Teach What They Do Not Know”

Mary Grabar

An Empty Curriculum: The Need to Reform Teacher Licensing Regulations and Tests, by Sandra Stotsky (Rowman & Littlefield, 160 pp., $24)

How bad is teacher education today? Consider: all states require that teachers be college graduates, but prospective teachers are passing licensure exams with skills and knowledge ranging from the seventh- to tenth-grade levels. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, as colleges of education draw from the bottom two-thirds of graduating classes (and for those planning to teach at the elementary levels, it’s the bottom one-third). Much time in such schools is wasted on fashionable, politically tendentious, but ineffective pedagogy. Think Bill Ayers and Paulo Freire, among the most frequently assigned authors in education courses. Think elementary-education professors specializing in such things as gender identity and postcolonialism.

In her new book, An Empty Curriculum: The Need to Reform Teacher Licensing Regulations and Tests, Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita of education at the University of Arkansas, offers a tested model of teacher knowledge, explains why it’s not being used, and describes strategies for overcoming the education establishment’s resistance. Stotsky’s credentials for this task are impressive: in her role as senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education from 1999 to 2003, she oversaw complete revisions of the state’s pre-K-12 standards as well as its teacher-licensure standards. Until these standards were replaced by the Common Core in 2010, Massachusetts ranked first among the states in educational achievement.

An entrenched education bureaucracy remains a formidable obstacle to meaningful educational reform, particularly in the area of standards. Many state education commissioners and staff “are influenced,” Stotsky says, “by the education schools they attended, teacher unions, school administrators’ needs, the interests of professional education organizations, and the pressure of political groups (especially think tanks, institutes, and policy-oriented organizations that claim expertise on educational matters).” Testing companies, educational entrepreneurs, diversity advocates, accreditation agencies, and political ideologues also have a vested interest in keeping standards low. Teacher-licensure tests, intended to protect children from incompetent teachers, set low passing requirements in order to protect teacher-preparation institutions, most of which, Stotsky points out, enjoy taxpayer funding.

Stotsky reminds readers how rigorous America’s education standards used to be. She cites a Michigan teacher-licensing exam in history from 1900, in which sample essay questions asked future grammar school teachers to, for example, “describe Ireland during the reign of Elizabeth” or “briefly state the result and effect of the Battle of Waterloo, naming the leading general.” States relaxed standards after a post-World War II teacher shortage, however, and relaxed them further after job options expanded for women, and further still after the court challenges of racial discrimination in the 1970s. Additionally, political correctness has corrupted subjects ranging from English and European languages to music and literature.

Stotsky calls on legislators and their constituents to revamp the system. To ensure teacher competency, she proposes raising college-admission standards and abolishing credits for undergraduate education coursework, replacing it with four years of academic coursework for core-subject teachers. Educationally high-achieving countries, such as Finland, South Korea, and Singapore, already take such measures. Extensive studies show that a teacher’s subject-matter knowledge is the best predictor of a student’s achievement, in line with the common-sense notion that “teachers cannot teach what they do not know,” as Stotsky puts it. Graduate-level coursework and professional-development courses should also be in the teacher’s subject areas: coursework for an M.S. or M.A. degree is far more intellectually demanding than for a M.Ed. degree. Stotsky also suggests requiring that directors, department heads, and curriculum specialists at the 5-12 grade level hold a master’s degree in their core subject and at least 18 credits of advanced graduate studies in one of the core academic subjects they supervise.

Such practical measures, however, aren’t in vogue. Much of the rhetoric surrounding the 2009 Race to the Top contest for federal stimulus funds focused on improving teacher quality, but the methods for measuring such quality can be dubious—including having students, beginning as early as kindergarten, evaluate their teachers. Georgia’s eight-year-olds assess teachers on such criteria as “my teacher cares about my learning” and “my teacher shows me how I can use what I learn at home and in the community.” The state then ties teacher bonuses to such ratings.

Stotsky’s compact and data-filled book should serve as a useful resource for pushing back against failed education policies and the bureaucrats who defend them.

This article originally appeared on City Journal on April 23, 2015. 

Image: IDB

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