Ivy League shuns teaching — except for TFA

Nearly one in five Harvard students apply to Teach for America, but very few want to train as teachers, says Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan. “He hopes that eventually between five and 10 percent of the class will go through the undergraduate teaching program,” reports Eleanor Barkhorn in The Atlantic. 

There’s “a long-standing institutional snobbery” about teaching writes Barkhorn.

As Walter Isaacson put it at this year’s Washington Ideas Forum, there’s a perception that “it’s beneath the dignity of an Ivy League school to train teachers.”

Teach for America has helped change that perception. “I think TFA has done a lot in terms of elevating the profession of teaching and elevating the importance of public education and education generally,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in conversation with Isaacson, CEO of The Aspen Institute, and Ryan.

Cornell has dropped undergraduate teacher-training, said Weingarten, a Cornell alum. “We say education is really important, but here you have the land grant institution of New York State that has eliminated teacher-training programs. If we don’t actually have real preparation like Finland and Singapore do that really teaches teachers how to teach … then what are we doing?”

In Finland and Singapore, only the best students can qualify as teachers. Finland combines master’s degree studies with supervised practice. In Singapore, master teachers mentor novices for several years.

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  1. Good. Teachers should have majors in real subjects, such as English, history, math, or physics, not “education”.

  2. My son and his girlfriend were picked up by TFA. They did the certification, taught but left for grad school. They went to the University of Chicago, one majored in American History, and the other in Spanish, with a Business Admin minor.

    They taught HS Algebra and Geometry. They could do that because UC requires it’s liberal arts majors to have at least 4 years of math.

    Both were very successful, but not because of teacher training.

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    TFA offers the chance to teach without having to waste a year of one’s young life taking bs ed courses.

    If traditional ed schools offered a summer program followed by a year’s teaching (with a reduced course load and structured collaboration with by an experienced teacher), they might find a lot more top students giving it a try. Of course, the ed schools would then have to downsize significantly–so I don’t see that happening.

    • D's Squirrel Food says:

      You’ve pretty closely described the teaching program that certified me. I took a summer’s worth of courses, then did a full-time, year-long internship while taking a class or two in the evenings. We were certified in just under a year, in time to enter the workforce in the fall. Unsurprisingly, the long internship was far more valuable than the classes, but the classes weren’t all a waste of time.

      Even though I spent much less time in class than traditionally certified teachers, the school still was able to make me pay through the nose, so it’s probably a sustainable model!

  4. As a science teacher and Cornell alum, I’m glad to see Cornell dropped it’s undergrad teacher program. It was a joke, even among the Ed majors who saw how little work they did compared to science and tech majors at Cornell.
    The secret to teacher training is not degrees or classes, but supervised practice, which shockingly does not require colleges or tens of thousands of tuition dollars.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Real supervised practice does, however, require money. The supervising teacher should be putting a fair amount of time and effort into the supervision. So someone else has to be paid for the classes he or she is giving up.

      Salary and benefits are, at minimum, 50K for an established teacher. High school teachers normally teach 5 classes a term. If even one is given up, that’s ten thousand dollars.

  5. So now that we’ve established that teacher training’s a joke anyone care to offer a hypothesis as to the reason?

    • SC Math Teacher says:

      Adherence to progressive ideology that places things like social justice above content knowledge for teachers?

      • I think that would be more an example of the lack of seriousness with which teacher education’s taken then the reason teacher education doesn’t have to be taken seriously.

        If a lefty biology prof started touting Lysenkoism he’d probably be gone pretty quickly but an ed prof who’s pushing whole language, regardless of the name it currently sports, can continue to spew his bilge till retirement. Why?

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      “So now that we’ve established that teacher training’s a joke anyone care to offer a hypothesis as to the reason?”

      I suspect the answer you’re looking for is “because public schools don’t care.” But I think the answer is actually that no one knows how to make a good teacher. Now that’s a big problem for schools. There are lots more people who would like to be teachers than there are openings, and voters want to believe that their teachers are qualified, so there has to be some mechanism to winnow down the candidates

      The business model of American education, public and private, is “you give us money and we give you a certification.” Most Americans have a faith that people learn useful things in college courses. So one obvious winnower is a college program that makes prospective teachers take education courses.

      Once schools of education are set up, they become the “experts” and, again, most Americans have a faith that the experts know what they are doing. The state governments require prospective teachers to go through the programs to be “qualified.” Those experts now have a fair degree of freedom to force prospective teachers to listen to what the experts think is important. Alas, rigorous education research is difficult and expensive, so not much is done. The door is open to a strange mixture of cheerleading and abuse.

      “Your classroom can be one in which students enter each day eager to learn! And you facilitate that learning! We teach you how to be democratic and inclusive. We try to scrub out the racism and bad thoughts that are ready to infect any one of you. If your classroom isn’t what you want, you should come back for more courses or attend workshops and read our books. And work for progressive change.”

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      allen, I’m sorry I didn’t respond at the time, but this seems like a good place to try to be responsive to some things you said back at the “ADHD diagnoses surge overseas” post. You said to Mike in Texas that his school “is indifferent to your professional skills, such as they may be.” Further, “The more-or-less recent spate of teacher and school accountability laws make it clear that there was no mechanism previously for determining whether schools and teachers were doing their job. The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from that fact is that, up until the advent of those laws, whether schools and teachers were doing a good job was immaterial.”

      I think that schools do care. And they do try to get good teachers. But they don’t know that much about how to do it–because no one does.

      Of course, the first thing schools do to try to get good teachers is to require a college degree and completion of “an accredited teacher training program.” Now these programs may not actually add much (if any) value, but administrators–and the vast majority of the American people–think they do. You might even agree that a college degree should be a necessity.

      In most places, schools have until the end of the third or fourth or fifth year to decide whether to
      give a teacher “tenure” or whatever that state calls it. Schools essentially “buy” a teacher with no returns possible. The people who run schools do not want to be stuck with a bad teacher. (Many organizations, public and private, are similar. There is an initial probationary period. Once an employee has been on the job for several years, he or she will probably not be fired unless the organization has budget problems or the person really screws up.)

      New teachers will be formally observed in the classroom. Administrators will notice if the teacher is sending abnormally large amounts of students for discipline (indicating “bad classroom management”). When they walk by the teacher’s room, does it look like education is going on? Are there complaints from students or parents? Do the following year’s teachers say, “My students who had Mr. X last year really don’t seem prepared” or “I love the students who had Ms. Y last year”? Has the teacher done something good for the school community? Are there complaints from other teachers? Now, there are real questions how much these things mean. But those are questions of how good a job school leaders do deciding who is a good teacher, not whether they try to get good teachers and avoid bad ones.

      Another thing that school leaders often look at is what kind of grades a teacher’s students are getting. Alas, this is problematic. A lot of failures can mean a bad teacher or or they can mean high standards. Very few failures can mean a good teacher or an easy grader. This issue is, of course, bigger than new teachers. You imply quite rightly that administrators can play a pretend game: “Ninety percent of our students pass and graduate. We must be good.” The resistance to outside tests suggests that people who work in those schools have some suspicion that this is delusion.

    • “I suspect the answer you’re looking for is “because public schools don’t care.”

      Since that’s a drum I’ve been banging for a while, no points for daring for Roger. But, that just moves the goal posts a bit, it’s still no explanation for the “why”.

      But your offer of the possibility that teaching to teach is inherently tough is a hypothesis although I believe a weak one. Us human beings have the longest childhood of any primate which is why the appellation of “learning animal” is appropriate. But the corollary of “learning animal” is “teaching animal” since the knowledge we need/needed to survive wasn’t absorbed by osmosis.

      The “aha moment”, when understanding pierces confusion, is as gratifying for the person who experiences it as it is for the person who helps bring it about. How many people who follow this blog aren’t familiar with the “aha moment”? How many people who read follow this blog can’t spot it from fifty feet?

      Teaching teaching is tough? About as tough as teaching fish to swim.

      Which isn’t to say there aren’t varying degrees of competence in the education of teachers, just that we’re built to teach as we’re built to learn and it takes a certain approach to frustrate those innate tendencies just as it takes a certain approach to encourage those innate tendencies.

      None of which is an explanation of why the frustrating of those innate tendencies is a worthwhile goal or even a tolerable outcome. But that is the state of affairs in teacher education.

      My explanation is that education isn’t important within the structure of the public education system. “because public schools don’t care” anthropomorphizes the incentives and disincentives built into the way public education’s structured but only for purposes of clarification. It’s that lack of importance that underlies all of what’s wrong with public education.

      • For once I agree with you! Teaching is natural. But the kind of teaching that is natural is: teaching a typical child, at a parent-to-children ratio (like 1 to 3 or so), to master a skill the adult has mastered and that is used regularly in the kids natural environment.

        It’s not so easy or natural to teach 26 kids at once. Or to teach kids who learn extremely differently from the norm (I.e. with disabilities). Or to teach an abstract concept, like algebra or text genre, that the student has never seen before in normal life and will never see again. The structures of the contemporary school work against our own psychologies.

        Can anyone teach? Can anyone learn? Yes and no. Under natural conditions, I think most anyone can teach most kids the important stuff needed for survival. Within the artificial constraints of the public school, it’s a lot harder. And I tend to agree with you that the powers-that-be would rather not know how effective schools are. But I don’t think that’s about protecting credentials. I think it’s because replicating natural conditions for learning would be unrealistically expensive, and because the powerful in society don’t really care about whether all kids learn anyway. They are more interested in using schools to sort and classify kids (and interested in ensuring that thir kids come out on top) than they are in teaching, so they are uninterested in getting a clear picture on whether the system is teaching effectively.

        • While I’m inclined to agree with you Anna that teaching, and learning, occurred in very small groups – parent to child, master to apprentice – that should not blind us to the fact that the underlying mechanisms of learning, the behavioral machinery that underlies education, is of essentially zero interest to ed schools or the public education system.

          With ignorance of the behavioral basis of learning in mind it’s impossible to say to what degree learning could occur in the economically-dictate classroom environment. It’s similarly impossible then to, a priori, discriminate between good methodologies and bad or good teachers and bad. We can observe the results but we can’t predict the results. An inability to make credible predictions is a sign of a poor, or no, understanding of the underlying dynamics of the situation.

          Ed schools and the public education system do not, however, need to understand how education occurs. Mandatory attendance means kids will show up regardless of the quality of the schools being operated and prospective teachers will show up at ed schools since the ed school’s the gate keepers to jobs as teachers. So, you were slightly incorrect Roger in your belief that the answer I was looking for is “because public schools don’t care”. The correct answer is because public schools, and ed schools, don’t *have* to care.

          That absence of a structural motivation in the public education system to pursue educational excellence does not preclude that pursuit. It does, however, mean that the reasons for pursuing educational excellence spring exclusively from within the individual. If you want to be a good teacher there’s nothing except the indifference of your superiors and peers to stop you. Sadly, that indifference is a pretty powerful force.

          Taken together with the absence of professional rewards for excellence the surprise is that the public education system isn’t in a worse state then it’s in.

          Roger, your unsupported assertion that schools, or rather the people who run them, care about teaching skill isn’t born out by public education hiring practices.

          If teaching skill were valued then ed schools would be ranked by the quality of the teachers they turn out. But they’re not. As I’ve stated before, and no one’s seen fit to dispute, one ed school’s pretty much interchangeable with another. At least with regard to the employability of the graduates.

          That’s as opposed to, say, engineering in which not only is the quality of the graduates crucial but the importance thereof is measurable in various “starting salary” charts. Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s – http://tinyurl.com/58julj

          A California Institute of Technology engineering degree’s worth $75,500 with an MIT degree not far behind. If you graduate from Morehead State however, with your engineering degree in hand, you won’t be buying a new car any time soon.

          Is there an analogous list for ed schools? If there is, feel free to point it out but we both know there isn’t.

          Ed schools have only teaching certificates to offer and that’s all that’s demanded by public schools. If the quality of the graduates were crucial then the graduates of good ed schools should be able to demand higher starting salaries. But starting salaries are fixed by forces which take no notice of teaching skill. If teaching skill’s not important at hire it’s quite proper to infer that it’s not important at all. And if teaching skill’s not important then how important can the results be?

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        What Anna said. Learning some things in some circumstances is natural. Most of school, especially past the early grades, is not. Teaching some things in some circumstances is natural. Most of school is not.

        If it were all so natural, there would be some place in the world where this naturalness happens. I know of no place. Can you point me to one?

  6. palisadesk says:

    Not all education programs are poor. Mine was something like the Finland model — after a getting an honors bachelor’s and MA in a rigorous academic discipline, I did the teacher training as a postgraduate program at a university that did not offer an elementary teaching degree. The course work was in the graduate schools of other disciplines — statistics, for instance, was taught by the math department, ditto psychology, etc. A few courses on educational history and so on were taught at an appropriate graduate level in the actual (very small) education department. Work in local schools was a required component, along with independent original research and supervised development of program and curricula.

    I’ve learned a whole lot since, but at least I went into my first teaching assignment well-prepared. I did not then appreciate how lucky I was.

  7. Crimson Wife says:

    I studied human biology at Stanford and a few years ago looked into what it would take for me to get a CA credential for teaching high school science. It was a complete joke! Of the 12 required classes, only 3 were subject-specific methods or student teaching. The rest were politically correct edu-babble such as “The Multicultural Foundations of a Diverse Classroom”.

    Would you want to be seen by a dental hygienist who only had 3 courses in cleaning teeth and 9 courses in dealing with diverse patient population?