Number Two in the History of American Education series describing how American education went over the edge of the cliff. When the history of American education is completed, other issues such as pedagogy, subject matter, who should be responsible for education, etc. will be put up for discussion.
"Virtually everyone has heard how poorly American students perform, whether compared to foreign students or to American students of a generation ago. What everyone may not know are the specifics of how bad the situation has become, how and why the public has been deceived, or the dogmas andhidden agendas behind it all." -- Thomas Sowell, Hoover Institution, from Inside American Education, The Free Press, 1993
How did our educational system go into an intellectual death spiral?
There are several reasons for it, but let's begin with the quality of our teachers, and then later work backwards.
There was a time, not really so very long ago, when the "schoolmarm" was highly respected, and often the most educated person in the community. She (she was usually a "she" for reasons we'll go into at another time) often taught in a one-room rural school house with a mixed-age population of boys and girls, and used as her staple the famous "McGuffey's Readers." She often had "assistant teachers," a hand-picked few from among her ablest older students.
McGuffey's "First Reader" had diacritical marks to help with the pronunciation of the words and the emphasis of syllables. The "Third Reader" used words like "heath" and "benighted," and its exercises asked the student to "relate the facts of this dialogue," and to answer questions like, "What is this species of composition called?" The "Fourth Reader" had the student reading selections from Hawthorne and Longfellow, while the "Fifth Reader" had selections from Shakespeare.
Early in the 20th century, eighth graders in Kansas were required to pass a spelling exam with words like "elucidation" and "anomosity," and define words such as "zenith" and "panegyric." They also diagrammed sentences and found the interest earned on $900.00 at 8% after 2 years, 2 months, and 6 days. Questions at a comperable level of difficulty were asked about history and geography.
Over time, our textbooks have been made steadily easier to read, even limiting vocabulary; words like "spectacle" and "admired" have been eliminated as "too difficult" in one widely used history textbook. This process of simplifying textbooks has even acquired a name - "dumbing down." Student performance has crashed, and we are obliged to rely more and more often on foreigners to keep our productivity up, either by bringing them in, or by exporting the jobs to them. As early as 1989, for example, New York Life began sending its health insurance claims by air to Ireland for processing, because American employees were making too many mistakes.
It wasn't some sudden genetic mutation in our population that produced a nation of incompetents. The kids' brains haven't turned into mush and it isn't a lack of passion of the teachers for their field. On the contrary, many young teachers enter the field with a intense desire to help their students.
Sooo... What's the problem?
Unfortunately, while those desiring to enter teaching are often sincere, they are, as a whole, drawn from a pool of the least academically qualified of all our college-bound students. Once in teachers' college, they continue to be poorly educated, and they are exposed to a philosophy that hobbles even the best of them intellectually.
Every one of us knows of a teacher who was intelligent, inspiring, and capable, someone who excited his or her students, and who perhaps even turned some lives around. They're out there. But unfortunately they are not in the majority.
The evidence for the poor quality of both teacher selection and training abounds. When the Educational Testing Service of Princeton checked the SAT scores of nearly a million high school seniors in 1990, it found that those who intended to become teachers scored near the bottom of all those taking the test.
The future teachers got a combined verbal/math score of 864, a socre that could not gain them admission to most middle-level liberal arts colleges. By contrast, students seeking a "general" college education got a combined score of over 1000.
The U.S. Department of Education has complained that "too many teachers are being drawn from the bottom quarter and third of the graduating high school and college students."
Pennsylvania is one of the states where there have been attempts to raise teacher standards. There, it was reported that most prospective teachers had a grade point average of only 2.5 - a C+ - prior to majoring in education, and that the requirements for entry into the teachers colleges could be met with the easiest courses. One academic has said "the educationists have set the lowest possible standards and require the least amount of hard work." The brightest college graduates have contempt for the kind of training given in schools of education, and often refer to the coursework as "Mickey Mouse," and consider the degrees to be "made-up phonies" that they would be embarrassed to be awarded. Education schools and education departments have been called "the intellectual slums" of the universities.
In 1997, another SAT score/career choice correlation was made. Of twenty intended vocations, would-be teachers scored 4th from the bottom, doing better only than vocations such as home economics and vocational training. They scored a full 200 points below those expecting to train in math and science. The average college-bound student has 50 more points on his SAT than his classmate wanting to become a teacher.
The SATs are given to high school students, but there is no improvement in test scores at the college level. The Graduate Record Exam tests college seniors applying for entrance into graduate school. These tests are in business, engineering, health sciences, life sciences, social science, physical science, the humanities, and education. The average score of college seniors entering teaching was dead last, at 1477. The overall average for all takers was 1577; the engineers got 1762, while the physical scientists got 1779.
When the U.S. Army tested college students for draft deferments during the Korean War, more than half the students in the humanities, social scineces, biological sciences, physical sciences and mathematics passed, but only 27% of the education majors did.
Students majoring in education in 1980-81 scored lower on both verbal and math sections of the SAT than students majoring in art, music, theater, the behavioral sciences, the physical sciences, the biological sciences, busines, engineering, mathematics, the humanities, or the health occupations. Undergraduate majors in business and commerce are generally regarded to be of lower quality than many others, but they performed better than education majors on both parts of the SAT. Engineering students tend to be much better mathematically than verbally, but their verbal scores - their weak point - were better than those of education majors. Art and theater majors tend to be better verbally than mathematically, but their math scores were better than education majors.
Worse yet, education majors' test scores have declined over time. In the academic year 1972-73, the average verbal SAT score for future education majors was 418; by 1979-80, it had declined to 389. The same held true at the graduate level, with students in many other fields outscoring education students on the GRE, by 91 points to 259 points, depending on the field.
When you consider that the graduate students in education are the pool supplying not only teachers, but counselors, administrators, and professors of education for the education establishment, the problem of quality across the educational board is seen to be, as one person said, "too critical for euphemism." The most poorly qualified students, taught by the most poorly qualified professors, in the poorest quality courses, are the pool from which most of America's teachers are drawn. They are not only academic bottom-feeders, they are susceptible to fads, especially to non- and anti-intellectual fads that are favored in education.
The fact that so many teachers are drawn from the bottom of the academic heap has profound consequences. Upon retirement from a 35-year career in teaching in an education program, a former professor stated that frustration was one of the reasons he was retiring; he found that the poor quality of the students made his work unrewarding. The students "dislike being educated and educating others." Many of them reject academic rigor because they never enjoyed it themselves, either as children or as adults. Since so many of them were poor students themselves that when they go into the classroom to begin teaching, they create for themselves an environment in which they feel comfortable, an environment which has low acadmic standards and expectations. Since for the most part students accomplish only what is expected of them, this weak academic environment produces a failing educational system.
As pointed out earlier, even the best, brightest, and most determined of our nation's students find it difficult to overcome our impoverished system, and they consistently score well below the top performers in tests of international assessment.
There are some exceptional people in teaching, and while they are few, the difference it makes to be taught by an intelligent teacher who is passionate about the subject can be dramatic. In Texas, a state-wide study found that smart teachers produce smart students, and that the performance of the teachers themselves on a statewide standardized test correlated positively with the achievement of the students in their classrooms.
An elite group of 600 experienced teachers said that the years they had spent in schools of education were "mind-numbing," and "an abject waiste of time," and that they were taught "the shabbiest psychobabble." In another similar group, there were complaints of "fragmented, superficial course work that had little relevance to classroom realities," and that the preparation work was "woefully inadequate."
That schools of education are not only of poor quality, but unnecessary and even detrimental is demonstrated "in the field," so to speak, by the fact that, as one ascends the ladder of academic results from those produced by government public schools to those produced by the best private schools, fewer and fewer teachers trained in colleges of education, and subsequently certified by the government, are seen.
At many top private schools, there is so much skepticism about government certification that faculties are made up almost exclusively of "non-professionals" without training in education. At one highly regarded school in Wallingford, Connecticut, the assistant headmaster pointed out that of the 172 faculty members, none had an undergraduate degree in edcuation; of the 104 with a master's degree, only 4 were in education; of the 9 who held a doctorate, none were in edcuation.
Evidence for the enthusiasm of many intelligent people who want to teach is the fact that they are often willing to work for from 10 to 40% less that they could make at government schools.
I wish I could say that the problem was limited to teacher qualifications, but there's more - much more - from philosophy, curriculum content, pedagogy, and who it is who sets the educational agenda. Eventually, we'll touch on all of these.