For the last year, with Alan Greenspan’s retirement imminent, much attention has understandably been given to President Bush’s choice of a successor as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and, now that the choice has been made, to what extent Mr. Bernanke will follow in Greenspan’s footsteps. Hardly any attention, however, has been devoted to what Mr. Greenspan himself will do in his post-Fed years. He could simply retire; and no one would fault him for taking a well-deserved rest. Yet if he chooses to continue to work in the field of economics, the sky is the limit of his opportunities. He could write a best-selling book on his years at the Fed or on economic policy in general. Networks such as CNBC would pay him a pretty penny if he deigned to serve as a guest commentator on the markets. No doubt the leading financial houses would also like to leverage his abilities as an analyst. Nor would the premier university economics departments in the country—Chicago, Princeton, Harvard—be slow in finding some wealthy donor to endow a chair for the chairman. Even their Nobel winners do not have an entire economic era named after them, as does Mr. Greenspan. In short, Mr. Greenspan will not have to sit too long by the phone if he chooses to send out his impressive résumé.
There is one job in the field of economics Mr. Greenspan could not have, however. He could not become a high-school economics teacher. That bears repeating. The man who served as Fed chairman for over eighteen years and was thought to be qualified enough by four presidents to superintend the American economy is not thought qualified enough to teach your children, if they are in public schools, introductory economics. While the former chairman of the Federal Reserve has plenty of knowledge in his “content area,” the educrats might concede, he lacks something required of public teachers in all fifty states: a teaching license, or “certification,” as it’s called.
Now a teaching license must be something pretty special to prevent Alan Greenspan from teaching high-school economics, you may assume. It’s special, all right. There’s nothing like it. The academic work required for a teaching certification amounts to a load of bogus classes in “child psychology,” emphasizing how troubled kids are and how little they can actually learn; in “pedagogy,” combining watered-down John Dewey as rendered in rudimentary textbooks and practical teaching tips that could be picked up by any sensible person after about five days on the job; and in a hodgepodge of other so-called social sciences, featuring classes such as “School and Society,” that are designed to convince prospective teachers that they are about the most important people in the whole world.
These classes are taught mostly by former public-school teachers who have distinguished themselves by acquiring over the course of their careers (partly in an effort to advance themselves on their district salary scales) an Ed.D., the most inflated and least rigorous doctorate in all of academe. Some education professors have never taught in a school but rather have committed themselves to educational research. These are the high-flyers who every year come up with or at least spread the good news of a new strategy for revolutionizing education, whether involving “multiple intelligences” or “student-centered learning” or “taxonomy.” These professors with their new ideas have presided over the steady decline of students’ learning during the last half-century.
The subject or subjects the prospective teacher will teach, such as economics, are relegated to the Limbo of one’s “content area.” Content courses are the bitter pill one must swallow to get to be a teacher. How bitter can easily be seen by taking a look at the transcript of most any graduate of an ed-school. Every year I receive about a hundred job applications from fully certified teachers for open positions at my school and therefore about a hundred college transcripts, and the story is almost always the same: straight A’s in education courses; multiple C’s, D’s, F’s, and W’s (“withdrawn,” i.e. the course is too hard so let’s try it again later or with an easier professor) in one’s content area.
Even more revealing are the conversations I have had with even the best of the ed-school bunch. Here is a revealing exchange I had with a candidate in “social studies” (the awful name given to the fields of history, government, and economics): So what’s your favorite time period in history? “The twentieth century.” So I guess it goes without saying that World War II was a pretty important event in twentieth-century history. “Oh, yeah, that’s one of my favorite things to study.” Okay, well maybe you could tell me what advantages or disadvantages you see in Neville Chamberlain’s approach to German pretensions in Europe in the late thirties. Silence. “Well, I mean, I think he had a good approach. You know, he did what he could.” Could you be more specific, say, tell me what his policy was called? “No, that’s something, you know, I’d have to do more research on.” Wasn’t that policy called appeasement and didn’t Churchill call Chamberlain’s performance at Munich a ’total and unmitigated defeat’? “Yeah, that’s what I meant. I didn’t mean Chamberlain but the other guy.”
Or how about this shorter conversation with a “reading specialist” who had a master’s degree in literacy? So if you have a master’s in literacy, you must know something about phonics. “Oh, yes, I use a lot of phonics in teaching reading.” So then I suppose you could tell me how many sounds the letter ’a’ makes. Silence. “Well, there’s short ’a’ and long ’a,’ so I guess two.” Unfortunately, my kindergarteners can tell me ’a’ makes four sounds, as in apple, ape, father, and talk. Some would say that the slight ’e’ sound in care is a fifth, and I haven’t even included the schwa.
Perhaps more egregious than such appalling ignorance of the basic facts in subjects education majors propose to teach your children is their failure to understand that such ignorance should be a disqualification for entering the field of teaching altogether. To education majors, knowing the basic outline of World War II, including some details of the life of that “other guy” Winston Churchill, is wholly unnecessary. In the mind of the typical ed-school graduate, the substance of what one is to teach students—whether history, math, science, or grammar—is just something a teacher “looks up” moments before teaching a subject, or dresses up with some gimmick because the teacher does not imagine young people could have a natural interest in a subject he has no fondness for himself.
It has become a cliché to say that public schools in this country are failing our children. And that failure does not just affect inner-city students but also students in what are thought to be “good public schools” in the affluent suburbs. “Stupid in America,” John Stossel’s recent title of an extremely revealing exposé of public education, is right on the money. What virtually all politicians and pundits are unwilling to say, however, is that the leading cause of this failure is the incompetence of the nation’s teachers, and that incompetence is guaranteed by the monopoly of ed-school certification. Since the topic is off-limits in the accepted discourse surrounding education reform, the idea of training more “certified teachers” still meets with approval in the public mind. Over the course of two or three subsequent essays, I propose to refute the leading arguments for the requirement of teacher certification and to indicate how schools could hire truly knowledgeable, competent teachers who have never spent a day in education schools. Should state governments and school districts actually take my advice and do away with teacher certification altogether, schools in this nation would improve overnight. Who knows? Alan Greenspan might actually get that high-school economics job some day.
Terrence O. Moore studied history at the universities of Chicago and Edinburgh. He served in the U. S. Marine Corps and taught history at Ashland University in Ohio. He is now the principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado, a K-12 charter school. Ridgeview’s high school is currently ranked the number one public school in Colorado based on the state’s accountability report. Ridgeview’s faculty is overwhelmingly uncertified. This column is the first of a series on teacher certification.