The Alarming Truth About Education Majors
Life + Money

The Alarming Truth About Education Majors

iStockPhoto/Joshua Hodge

At many large universities with an undergraduate college of education, the education school is regarded by students and faculty alike as the weak link, sometimes something of an embarrassment. None of the top dozen or so universities in rankings compiled by magazines like US News or Forbes typically even has an undergraduate ed school, in contrast to lots of institutions among the lowest ranked universities that were originally "normal schools" that even now have large education colleges.  Could, however, this merely reflect prejudicial and snobbish attitudes against those interested in pedagogy and the promotion of high quality "lower" education?

Not so. An important new study of literally thousands of teacher prep programs from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) suggests the campus indictments of education schools are very justified. The NCTQ was established over a decade ago by reformers and scholars dissatisfied with the pathetic oversight of education schools done by establishment accrediting agencies like the National Council on Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). NCTQ is financed by a bevy of heavyweight philanthropic groups such as the Gates and Arnold foundations.  A few of the study's conclusions:

  •  "In countries where students outperform the U.S., teacher prep schools recruit candidates from the top-third of the college-going population....only one in four U.S. programs restricts admissions to even the top half of the college-going population;"
  • "In mathematics training of elementary teacher candidates, few programs emulate the practices of higher performing nations such as Singapore or South Korea. Only 19 percent of programs demonstrate similar expectations of their teachers;"
  • "Almost all programs (93 percent) fail to ensure a high quality student teaching experience, where candidates are assigned only to highly skilled teachers and must receive frequent concrete feedback"
  • "Only 11 percent of elementary programs and 47 percent of secondary programs are providing adequate content preparation in the subjects they will teach."

That comports with what I have observed. The students majoring in education are below average academically, with relatively low test scores and high school rank. They often have so-so preparation in the subject matter they are going to teach. The most critical part of preparation -student teaching--is often done in a slapdash fashion with students working with mediocre teachers, not the very best.

But above all, I observe very little rigor and no incentives to excel academically. National data show grade inflation is a serious problem throughout higher education, with a typical college student class grade now being a "B", compared with a "C+" a half century or so ago. But in education schools it is far worse.


Whereas students average close to "B-" grades in courses in economics and physics at my university, those in the education school average "A-" and grades below "B" are virtually nonexistent except for the rare "F" for a registrant who is a complete no show. Yet the students in the education school are far less competent academically (based on SAT scores or high school grades) than the physicists or economists. Relatively weak students are given a non-rigorous course of study but earn very high grades.

Why are the education schools attracting mediocre scholars in the first place? Part of it relates to the changing role of women in the labor force (many bright females who previously went into teaching now are becoming doctors and lawyers), part may relate to the bureaucratic, anti-meritorious nature of our public schools arising out of very bad labor union contracts, but part of it, I suspect, arises from the fact that the best and brightest students simply don't want to study the mush taught in the education schools.

What to do? Teaching younger students is a vital task. Having mediocre students become mediocre teachers has dangerous implications for our nation's future, leading us to spending vast amounts of money on very modest levels of academic achievement for those young individuals that will lead our nation in coming decades.  A vast and powerful alliance of educrats, however, will fight any effort to radically alter teacher education.

Moreover, my guess is that half-measures will not do. It will only be a matter of time that piecemeal reforms would be overturned by the voices of mediocrity dominating the K-12 Educational Establishment, including the education schools themselves. Therefore, the goal should be to eliminate undergraduate colleges of education. And rather than fight the battle one university at a time, state governments can make it happen easily:  make it a felony for a principal to knowingly hire a graduate of a college of education to teach our youth in public schools (the better private schools often do not hire them already, as they are less constrained by archaic teacher certification laws).  Research generally shows that those with alternative paths to certification (avoiding the ed school gauntlet) do just fine in the classroom. Indeed, the Teach for America program has been a huge success -using young, very bright and accomplished students from non-educational school backgrounds.  Don't reform schools of education - criminalize them.


Teachers should earn degrees in academic disciplines, and undergo a modest amount of teacher preparation that at the secondary level is almost exclusively student teaching, working with seasoned high quality professionals, while primary and special education teachers should also receive a small number of courses dealing with the special problems of teaching those with immature minds or physical or mental disabilities. The supply of good teachers will expand, and universities will be free of an albatross that simply has not worked well, either for them or society.

Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches economics at Ohio University and is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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