Arthur Levine, former President of Columbia University's Teachers College, has issued a no-holds barred critique of doctoral-level research in the nation's colleges of education. The report is pretty long and technical, but the punch line is significant for both parents and policymakers.
The short story is that our colleges of education are giving Ph.D.s to researchers who aren't qualified to hold a Ph.D. These people, in turn, are providing the research on which public school policy decisions and teacher training is based.
Levine surveyed deans, faculty, education school alumni, K-12 school principals, and reviewed 1,300 doctoral dissertations and finds the research seriously lacking. He ultimately recommends that policymakers close many doctoral programs at education colleges and instead suggests a two-year M.B.A. type of degree for would-be school administrators.
Just how bad is the quality of doctoral-level research in colleges of education? Levine's review doesn't pull any punches:
In general, the research questions were unworthy of a doctoral dissertation, literature reviews were dated and cursory, study designs were seriously flawed, samples were small and particularistic, confounding variables were not taken into account, perceptions were commonly used as proxies for reality, statistical analyses were performed frequently on meaningless data, and conclusions and recommendations were often superficial and without merit...
Frederick Hess, education policy director at the American Enterprise Institute, reported on papers presented by college of education faculty from around the country at their most recent national scholarly convention. Hess had more than a little fun with paper titles such as Identity, Positioning, Knowledge, and Rhetoric in the Pedagogical Practices of Elderly African-American Bridge Players and The Educational Lives of Alaska Native Alumni of the University of Alaska-Anchorage.
There were even papers on outer space, such as Education Policy, Space, and the Colonial Present. Beam me up, Scotty.
This might all go for a good laugh, if it weren't for the fact that these are your tax dollars at work, and that college of education faculty have the rather serious task of training future teachers.
In his report, Levine writes, Most universities, after a barrage of reports over the past two decades on the need to strengthen teacher education, did little or nothing. Levine notes that many universities use colleges of education as a cash cow -- enrolling far more students than they should by lowering admissions requirements for the program, while simultaneously cutting education college expenses.
I recently reviewed the course requirements at Arizona State University for teacher certification. ASU's elementary education program requires as many hours in fine arts as it requires in reading instruction. This in a state where 44 percent of fourth graders are functionally illiterate.
In 1998, Massachusetts required an academic skills exam for prospective teachers near the completion of their college careers. Fifty-nine percent failed the test. The state Board of Education chairman rated the exam at about the eighth grade level. Newspapers reported misspellings worthy of 9-year-olds, an inability to describe nouns and verbs, and the inability to define words such as imminent.
Clearly, a complete rethinking of teacher training and certification is overdue.
But the need for reform goes far beyond simply revamping college of education courses and admissions standards and opening up new routes to teacher certification. Policymakers must make the teaching profession itself more attractive to academically talented students, vast swathes of whom avoid the profession completely.
There was a time when schools benefited from gender discrimination, but those days are over. Bright and capable women today rightly have their pick of career opportunities, and are unlikely to enter a profession completely divorced from any recognition of merit. Teachers typically receive compensation based upon a union negotiated pay scale that recognizes length of service, not effectiveness.
Education schools are cash cows for universities, and the public education system is a cash cow for unions. The beneficiaries of the status quo have thrown children and taxpayers under the hooves of a stampede.
If we want our children to have access to the education they need, improved teacher training, new routes to teacher certification, and a compensation system that rewards merit must be pieces of the puzzle.
Dr. Matthew Ladner is vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute and an expert on educational reform and school choice. Dr. Ladner holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston.