Teachers on ed degree's value

Teachers discuss an education degree’s value (or lack thereof) on the NY Times’ Room for Debate blog. From Mark:

I am a 21-year veteran teacher who took a whole boatload of education courses in furtherance of my BA and MS degrees. They were utterly useless. The only thing that actually prepared me for teaching was student teaching. All of the other courses taught theory, but nothing practical.

Mark has mixed feelings on merit pay.

I am a very successful teacher, and parents and students alike have sought me out over my career. I make the same salary as another teacher who does nothing but shows movies in class all day. I spend my summers revising my work, creating new and interesting facets to the course. I make the same as the teacher who spends the summer not thinking one iota about the next school year.

Merit pay has some merit, it encourages certain behaviors and discourages others. What I am afraid of is that it will be used to reward the wrong people. If a teacher is mediocre, it is because they have been allowed to get away with it, their behavior empowered by administration. There is a great deal of cronyism in the business, and it skews the playing field.

A “frustrated early-childhood education teacher” calls for combining “pedagogy and a strong apprenticeship” program. What she doesn’t want is to sit through time-wasting professional development classes, such as a “five-hour session that culminated in making a caterpillar from an egg carton.”

Update: After qualifying for National Board certification, a veteran teacher was told he lacks enough credits for certification, reports WashPost columnist Jay Mathews. One phone call from Mathews got the bureaucrats to decide the teacher, who’s also a lawyer and Army vet, is qualified to teach.

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  1. On the other hand:

    As a (retired) special education teacher, certified to teach students from toddler age to adults, I can’t imagine entering my field with no specialized education direction. My M.A. was concentrated in the special education field, as were the 30-plus credits I completed beyond it. However, the basic education skills I learned in undergraduate school were invaluable for preparing me to work with young people in general.

    An understanding of the basic ‘ABC’s’ of what makes all children tick is absolutely necessary. I’ve seen many teachers ‘bomb’ over the years because they knew their subject matter, but not how to interact with, or be a role model for, children.

  2. “There is a great deal of cronyism in the business, and it skews the playing field.”

    The way to avoid this is to ensure that the administrators are *also* on the incentive plan. There is much less temptation to reward one’s useless cronies if one is being judged on their performance.

  3. My sister-in-law teaches math and was recognized a couple years ago as state Teacher of the Year.

    She told me that her B.Ed. coursework was an absolute joke. Her *HIGH SCHOOL* classes were significantly harder than anything she had to take to earn her credential.

    There’s a reason why the top prep schools in the U.S. typically shun ed school graduates….

  4. I think that it was on this site that several spec ed teachers said that their coursework was almost useless; nothing specific on teaching reading in general (phonics) and nothing specific on working with dyslexia in particular. And I understand that most of the spec ed kids have problems with reading…

  5. My own kids did not need spec ed services for education, although one did have speech therapy (speech therapists are not from the ed school and their prep is very clinical) from preschool-2nd grade, but I have read many comments on this and other websites from parents who say that lack of subject-specific knowledge is often a problem with spec ed teachers. Lack of such knowledge appears to be one of the reasons that some parents want their kids to be mainstreamed, even though there may be real costs to other kids in the class. How about improving the spec ed certification, instead?

    From what I have read, spec ed is neither subject nor level specific. That may be part of the problem. I cannot see how anyone, despite being “certified to teach students from toddler age to adults”, can be an effective teacher across that age spectrum and across all subjects. Despite the ed establishment’s claims, subject knowledge does matter.

    In nursing, for example, both MSN programs and clinical certifications are within specific clinical and/or age categories. BTW, those certification exams are real tests that assess the clinical knowledge in the field that is a prerequisite for advanced practice. The MSN programs typically require area-specific coursework in sciences, social sciences,nursing classes and practice and satisfactory completion of 1-2 days of essay examinations. There is no resemblance to the el ed master’s a relative of mine has, which included both beanbag and advanced beanbag classes, among other such gems. The “research project” would not have made the cut at my kids’ middle school science fair.

  6. Nothing takes the place of actual teaching in preparing an educator, but my credential program classes were not a waste. Pedagogy was a serious focus, as was Content Area Literacy, dealing with special situations (parents, student crushes, administrators), an entire class on dealing with special education (504’s and IEP’s), and the entire program hammered on the state standards. In fact, we it was so important that when a new instructor told us to “ditch the standards”, much of the class rebelled.

    Add to that the necessity for attention to detail, the entrance interview (three professors grilled you on content knowledge), and exit interview (a group of professors went through your portfolio and grilled you), and I’d call Chico State’s program pretty damn good. Again, nothing substitutes good classroom application, but I hardly found education classes useless.

  7. I had no undergraduate ed courses, but I a great experience in the MAT program at Willamette U. in Oregon. It was preservice, and I know many folks do their MA during their service. That program was also intensely field and action-research driven, with (mostly) strong supporting courses in pedagogy, theory, psychology, etc. My methods and multicultural ed courses were not useful, but I learned a great deal about how to plan and implement effective teaching and assessment while considering the needs of my learners. I spent nearly a whole school year student-teaching and taking evening and weekend classes to earn that degree, and I know it made me a much better teacher than I could have ever possibly been otherwise.

    After that, however, the courses I have taken to further my place on the salary scale have been largely time-wasters…very little practical application to my classroom. One could say I should have chosen different courses, but I didn’t have options.

  8. Ponderosa says:

    I think that ed school should be abolished and that prospective teachers (Grades 5-12) should do post-BA coursework in the subject they want to teach. Some of these courses should be tailored to match the state standards; e.g. Background Knowledge for Teaching a California 7th Grade Medieval and Early Modern World History Class. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I believe that intimate knowledge of one’s subject is the royal road to creative, rich, interesting and engaging lessons. Otherwise teaching is merely advanced secretarial work.

  9. tim-10-ber says:

    Great comments!

    I do know a spec ed graduate from Peabody/Vanderbilt who is teaching high school math. Of course she was a math under grad and got her masters in special ed. She was an excellent SAT tutor for my older son on the math section. She was much more effective in her spec ed class during her student teaching as she had mastered the subject and could help the kids learn the subject matter that was going to be tested. )The “regular” teacher for the class could NOT do this as he did not know math!!!) The students love her!!

    So…I am in favor of eliminating the ed major. But..it sounds like there may be a handful of classes that are helpful if a teacher is not getting a masters in education. Are there enough classes to meet the requirements of an ed minor?

    I do believe grades 5 – 12 should be subject matter experts (kids should rotate for all classes in 5th grade if not 4th grade.) I wonder if it would be helpful if teachers were a little older when they go into the classroom…meaning not 21 or 22 and just out of college with very limited experience in the classroom.

    How many ed schools now require a full year of student teaching plus additional classes before the teachers are certified to teach? Also, how many ed students get weeded out of the process and do not get certified? If we know certification does not mean the student is qualified to teach or will be an effective teacher how do we get this changed?


  10. I took my graduate degree while working on a certificate as a psychometrician. That said, the worthwhile courses were those related to the certificate and not the “filler” courses.

    When I first applied, I just used my college transcript and was rejected due to a low GPA. I thought it was amusing since the school that rejected me wasn’t even listed in the top 60 graduate schools for education. When I arrogantly pointed out that my undergraduate was from a top 5 school in the discipline that I received the degree, they miraculously found that I did qualify.

  11. The “lesson” I remember most from ed school is that only white people can be racist.

  12. A family member who recently retired after about 40 years teaching HS history and whose bachelor’s and master’s degrees were in the Arts & Sciences college, has always maintained that there were only a handful of desirable/necessary ed courses. Those were (1) tests and measurements, (2) methods, (3)growth & development/psych and (4) practice teaching. All of the above should be both subject and level specific and taught by faculty who have significant and recent experience teaching both that subject and that level.

  13. California’s state-run universities do not offer BA/BS degrees in “education.” To earn a credential and become a teacher, one must have a bachelor’s degree in *something* and then additional ed school coursework.

  14. Ponderosa,

    While being passionate and learned on your subject matter, it is not nearly enough to be a successful teacher. In fact, if you are in it for the subject matter, you will burn yourself right out the door because education is not about subject matter, it’s about kids. A graduate degree in History is not going to make you a better history teacher. The standards are pretty simple in History, and the key is being passionate about teaching to kids, not the details of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

    That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be passionate about subject matter. They’ll be interested if you are interested. But you need more.

    By the way, a Master’s in Education or graduate education coursework doesn’t make you better teacher either. A fantastic master teacher, and administration that’s understanding/supportive/critical will make a good teacher. Admin that understands that teachers will make a lot, and I mean a lot, of mistakes for the first few years, and demand that you work on not making the same ones again and again.

  15. Independent George says:

    education is not about subject matter, it’s about kids.

    I think that statement is the dividing line on the education debate. There’s just not much room for constructive dialogue between those who believe in that statement, and those who are horrified by it.

  16. Independent George: are those two necessarily exclusive? I’m curious how that would inspire horror.

  17. “A graduate degree in History is not going to make you a better history teacher”

    This may well be true, in your case. Earning my graduate degree helped me become a much better writer. It also improved my research skills considerably. My students benefit from this. For example, my 9th graders have to write a five page thesis paper, and I guide them, step by step. Among other things, this process includes helping students do original research, mainly using primary sources, and reviewing and correcting their rough drafts. I would not teach this project as well if I had only completed my B.A. in history and my California single subject credential. Thus, earning my graduate degree in history has made me a better teacher.

    I suspect that I make greater use of primary sources than many teachers, which is largely inspired by my grad school education. You may not associate such sources with being a better teacher, so I’m not really making that my argument. Textbooks and lecture are fine – I just don’t like to depend on them as heavily as some teachers do. Also, my M.A. work broadened my subject knowledge, which has proven useful as a secondary school teacher. I wouldn’t know anywhere near as much about Latin America, for example, if not for grad school.


  18. Ponderosa says:

    Coach, your position is widely held (cf. the cliche, Teach the child, not the subject). I suspect it’s so common because few of us have had teachers who have electrified a classroom with their erudition (and, of course, talent for translating complex subject matter into a form that is intelligible to kids) –so it’s hard for us to conceive of such a teacher. But, in my opinion, those are the best kinds of teachers. The genial generalist teacher, fair and fatherly, is a good type of teacher too. But education –for all levels of kids –can get high-octane and scintillating with a teacher who has command of his subject.

  19. Ponderosa says:

    And education IS about the subject matter…AND the kids.

    By initiating them into the mysteries of the liberal arts, we can raise their minds above the common run.

  20. Marco,

    If you want to think that using primaries sources has to do with spending more time in graduate courses, go ahead and believe that. I use primary sources extensively, not because of graduate work, but because it’s good teaching. I liked them in high school, I saved them through college, and that part of teaching was preached in my credential program. If the graduate work helped you with a deeper understanding of history to pass to students, that’s fine too.

    What I bristle at is this notion that Graduate Degrees or attending Ivy League schools/Stanford somehow make the better teacher. Save the history information that I can read in a book, everything you mentioned was explained to me by undergraduate professors in pre-credential programs, credential classes, my master teacher, or current colleagues. I don’t like new teachers to think that they need graduate degrees to become good teachers. Yeah, duh, they need to have an exceptional grasp of subject matter. But does that have to include an MA in History? Can’t any decent historian dive further into history without sitting in a classroom for an extra two years? I’d tell a new teacher that the time would be much better spent working with kids, student teaching, coaching, or starting in the first years of the teaching career. Go back and get the Masters later.

    Now, that’s my opinion, and it’s not meant to knock your efforts. I think plenty of issues in the public opinion realm regarding teachers are misguided. “Advanced Degrees” making the teacher is just one of them.

  21. “Can’t any decent historian dive further into history without sitting in a classroom for an extra two years?”

    Who dives more into history over your arbitrary two-year period? A grad student who constantly reads history books, articles, and primary sources and who regularly discusses these works with other scholars? Or a newly-minted, secondary school teacher scrambling to find their footing at their first school, desperately trying to stay on top of the challenges of lesson planning, correcting papers, maintaining classroom discipline, and all the other demands of being a new teacher? Are you honestly suggesting that the grad student and the full-time newbie teacher have anything remotely close to equal time to “dive further into history”?

    The fact that you even ask this question suggests that you either have no idea at all of what goes on in a history graduate program or that you have failed to apply critical thinking to this topic.


  22. When I was taking advanced history courses as an undergrad, many of my classmates were teachers working part-time for their master’s degree. Many classes, not just in history, were offered as one three-hour evening block to accommodate part-timers. Is that no longer an option?

  23. Calm down Marco. This isn’t about who is more proficient in History, it’s about better teaching. If your mission is become a better Historian, then by all means, knock yourself out in the graduate program. But I’ll be telling the new teacher that they should “find their footing at their first school, desperately try to stay on top of the challenges of lesson planning, correcting papers, maintaining classroom discipline, and all the other demands of being a new teacher”, because that’s an incredibly important part of teaching.

    And yes, I was a graduate student in Poli-Sci (I have a BA in History) before I started teaching. I know that the demands of the program make you more focused and knowledgeable on the subject matter. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether or not an Advanced Degree actually makes you a better teacher. Cost/Benefit? I would say that the cost of the degree far outweighs the benefit of getting your ass in the classroom. You can always go back and get the MA. But that’s just me.

    Oh, and brother historian, congrats on your MA. But you don’t need a sheet of paper to be a good historian.

  24. I do not think knowledge is more or less important than skill in instruction.

    Long ago I read about Isaac Newton, one of the great minds of his time. He was a faculty member at Cambridge. A professor resigned so Newton could take the position. Newton’s lectures were so difficult some were not attended by anyone.

    I do not recall Herodotus or Thucydides having a history degree.

  25. Ed Wheeler says:

    I regard teacher certification requirements as little more than a means to perpetuate the educational bureaucracy infrastructure.

    I retired from the Army after 35 years. On the strength of my rank (BG) and two Masters Degrees, I was granted the opportunity to teach at one of the nation’s leading community colleges that has more students than most universities. I’ve taught for ten years and was accorded an award as my campus’ outstanding adjunct instructor.

    But I have NO certification and therefore am ineligible to teach
    high school. What’s wrong with that picture ????


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