Thursday, February 5, 2009

Teacher education programs part of the problem

Up until high school, I enjoyed math. I thought I was good at it. Then, I hit Grade 11 math, and along with Grade 11 math came Mr. Anand.

Mr. Anand was Death to Math Enjoyment. He was a bright, personable, confident math teacher whose explanations were unintelligible to me. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get it. Hating the daily trauma of not understanding what we were doing, I began to skip the class. Eventually, I fell so far behind that the most logical course of action seemed to be to drop the course and graduate from high school without it. Mr. Anand’s class had tipped me over from “good math student” to “math dropout.”

A decade later, I enrolled in community college to pick up that math course. My community college teacher? Mr. Anand. After a few more months with Mr. Anand, I was again completely lost. I took a trig exam thinking I would ace it, and instead, I flunked it. When the stock market crashed, I gratefully accepted that as an excuse to drop the course. I was 30 years old, working in finance, and I hadn’t passed high-school math.

A year later, I had married, moved and enrolled in college. The math requirement worried me. I felt deep in my bones that I was good at math, but my experiences with Mr. Anand had spawned many doubts. Thankfully, Mr. Anand had not made his way to Tennessee. College math was fun, interesting and logical. I still enjoy math, although I’m quite unenthusiastic about Mr. Anand.

I tell you this story because I’m aware of how much difference teachers make. Teachers hold the keys to the future; their interest and skill can make or break the learning process. But the teaching profession – one of the more challenging professions out there – is complicated by the lack of core content in many teacher education programs. I’ve heard and read repeatedly about programs that are woefully light in content, that focus too much on how to teach and not enough on what to teach. It’s a shame, because common sense and research tell us that teachers who know core subjects – math, science, languages, civics and history – are better able to teach them to their students (Stotsky, n.d.; “Teaching,” 2004; “U.S. Department,” 2005, p. 3; “Teaching,” 2006).

Some educators believe they can pick up a well-written textbook and effectively teach that material even if they don’t know it themselves. The prevalence of this theory helps explain why math is so often taught as a game in which children work in groups to teach math to themselves. But I doubt the theory does hold true for math. As I tutor our daughter in algebra and geometry, it’s clear that she won’t understand it if I don’t.

The sad state of K-12 math instruction appears to be intentional. In 1997, public policy organization Public Agenda found that, of 900 professors of education, 86% believed it was more important for aspiring teachers to “struggle with the process of finding the right answers than knowing the right answer” (“Professors,” 1997). Fifty-seven percent thought that children who used calculators from the beginning would have better problem-solving skills. Just 55% would require high-school graduates to demonstrate proficiency in “spelling, grammar, and punctuation.” Sixty percent wanted “less emphasis on memorization” in the classroom.

Fast-forward 11 years to 2008. A report from the National Council on Teacher Quality said that elementary-school teachers are now ill prepared to teach math to their students, having received insufficient instruction in math while they were in college (Zuckerbrod, 2008).

Folks, teachers have been betrayed too. They’re in the same shoes as their students. They can’t know things they haven’t been taught. If they don’t know it, they’ll struggle to teach it. Some would argue that last point with me, but just look around. The proof is right there in the generally weak math skills, sinking enrollments and high rates of dropouts and remediation.

Dr. Sandra Stotsky is a professor of Education Reform and holds the 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality at the University of Arkansas. She is also a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education, and was a member of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. She has said schools of education are “a major part of the problem,” not the solution (2005) and that they’re responsible for three critical issues facing public schools:

  • Many teachers, especially those in K-8, have not gained an adequate academic background in the subject they’re supposed to teach in their professional preparation program.
“As every school district has found, most of their K-8 teachers require continuous professional development in the knowledge base for the subjects they teach. This is remediation, not enrichment or updating ….”
  • Colleges and universities aren’t providing public schools with sufficient numbers of “academically qualified teachers” for core secondary school subjects.
  • “Education schools do not train prospective teachers how to teach.”
“Instead, they arm new teachers with a host of pseudo-teaching strategies like small group work and with the philosophy that students should ‘construct their own knowledge’ and are more capable of shaping their own intellectual growth than teachers if they are sufficiently motivated by ‘inquiry.’ Education schools have been especially remiss in preparing new instructors with research-based knowledge for teaching beginning reading and arithmetic … The funds now invested in professional development to train our current teaching force how to teach beginning reading and arithmetic are staggering.”

Many teachers earn extra pay for master’s degrees, but Dr. Stotsky is critical of the typical master’s of education degree, calling it “an academically impoverished set of courses touting a body of ‘professional’ knowledge that has little, if any, support from credible research.” She says schools of education often disparage scientifically based evidence as “positivistic and irrelevant,” while rejecting scientific research that supports systematic and explicit instruction in reading, practicing skills, and providing “highly structured teaching” for at-risk children:

“Many if not most of the faculty in our education schools who prepare new teachers and retrain experienced ones do not accept the results of scientific research on the nature, development, and teaching of reading or writing or arithmetic. … They thus mistrain those who are preparing to teach in costly licensure programs … and continue to mistrain them in even more costly professional development programs.”

Speaking of development programs, it’s strange to me that people go to college, learn how to teach and then come out supposedly needing retraining in order to teach. Why would universities and colleges allow such a situation to continue? If teachers don’t know how to teach when they graduate from education programs, then either they need to stay there longer, or maybe there’s something wrong with the programs.

If I ran a university, and my school of education didn’t turn out teachers who were qualified to teach – without the constant need for coaching and retraining – I’d be embarrassed. If I ran a school district and had to keep retraining the people I hired – I’d be embarrassed. If I were a teacher, I’d be angry that I paid for a college education that didn’t adequately prepare me to go out and work. This is not an argument to fire a bunch of teachers; I’m following this thought through to its logical conclusion. If teachers who graduate from college need retraining, then something is awry.

Besides the fact that professional development is a lucrative business, it’s another sneaky way of blaming the teachers. It’s easier and more comfortable to say: “The math programs will work just fine once the teachers know how to teach it” than it is to acknowledge that the curriculum itself is inadequate and incomprehensible. Illogically, while teachers are away from class getting all of this retraining, their students are taught by substitute teachers who are not getting the retraining.

I’m truly surprised teachers haven’t yet filed a class-action lawsuit.

In March 2008, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel said teacher-education programs must focus more on traditional aspects of math such as whole numbers, fractions, geometry, measurement and algebra (“Foundations,” 2008, p. xviii). The Panel said teachers need to know mathematics in order to teach it better, and so the “mathematics preparation of elementary and middle school teachers must be strengthened as one means for improving teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom” (p. 39).

(It’s hard to believe the NMAP had to say that.)

Can we ever expect professors currently in the colleges of education to step back and say, “Gee, maybe we were wrong”? Most of them taught reform, promoted it, fought for it, received grant money for it and published material on it. It takes a big person to admit an error, especially one this costly in children’s futures. I expect most of them to support reform until they die.

Parents could grow old and gray waiting for teacher education programs to acknowledge the obvious. Find out what your children need to know for post-secondary life and fill in the gaps. Students shouldn’t have to wait until they’re 30 to get the math they need for the life they want.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (February, 2009). "Teacher education programs big part of the problem." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was posted February 9, 2009 at, at

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