The Education of Teachers

Rita Kramer

June 16, 2014


This lecture was delivered on December 12, 1991, as part of the Ashbrook Center’s “Major Issues Lecture Series” at Ashland University. The subject for the 1991-92 Major Issues Lecture Series is “Striving Towards Excellence in Education.” Because, as Governor George Voinovich has said, these lectures “cover topics that are innovative and substantive within the educational field,” and because the “subject is of particular relevance considering the challenges facing our current educational system,” the Ashbrook Center is publishing the lectures under the series “Excellence in Education.” It is our hope that the wide circulation of these monographs, and the book to follow, will add to the much needed national dialogue on educational issues. Other speakers and authors in the series include: Denis P. Doyle, Pete du Pont, Chester Finn, Dinesh D’Souza, Lynne Cheney, and Lamar Alexander. The opinions expressed in these publications do not necessarily reflect the views of the John M. Ashbrook Center or its Board of Advisors. The Center is grateful to the John M. Olin Foundation for its generous support of the series.

F. Clifton White
Ashbrook Center


The Education of Teachers

by Rita Kramer

First, let me tell you how pleased I am to be here with you today to talk—according to the program—about “the education of teachers.” And next let me tell you that what I am going to say might better be titled “The Miseducation of Teachers,” because my thesis is that the main thing that is wrong with the education of the young in this country today—and it would be hard to find anyone who does not think there is something wrong—could best be solved not through more spending, not through restructuring, but through better preparing our teachers for the job they do.

Children are inspired to learn by good teachers—people who know something well, believe in its value, and enjoy introducing it to others. Teaching is an activity that can be successfully conducted in a basement room with meager furnishings. About all that is required are books and writing materials. The rest is trimming.

Stripped down to essentials, when we talk about the success or failure of the schools, what we are talking about is the success or failure of teachers. Not districts or boards or commissions, despite the influence they can exert, and not computers, calculators and audio-visual equipment, although these things are nice. We are talking about the age-old process by which someone who is grown-up, experienced, and educated imparts knowledge to the young—skills and facts, how to use them, what to make of them—eventually, wisdom. A familiarity with the world, past and present, and a sense of one’s own place in it. That is what we mean by education, and if too many of our young are not being educated, perhaps we should take a look at those who are teaching them and ask what is going wrong and why. It may not be the teacher’s fault, but it is in the teacher’s role that the center must be established and must hold.

Let me say a word about what I think has gone wrong in our nation’s schools, how I think it has come about, and then what I think we could do about it.

The public schools, once this country’s crucible for citizenship as well as individual achievement, have in recent years undergone a vast redefinition of their mission. The function of the schools is no longer perceived as the transmission of the common culture and the acquisition of those skills necessary to understand it, participate in it, and extend it. Instead, the schools have been transformed into agencies of social change with their primary goal being the attainment of equity at all costs and their emphasis consequently on the therapeutic and the remedial in place of the quest for knowledge and excellence.

How has this come about? The answer is twofold, and has to do with the politicization of the schools in general and of teacher education in particular.

In what amounts to national obsession with the schools as laboratories for change, the places in which to solve all of the country’s social and economic problems, schooling has become a huge industry funded by the national government as well as the states.

The enormously increased role of the federal government in education, both financial and regulatory, with the legislature and the courts having more to say about what goes on in the schools in the past thirty years or so than in the entire previous history of the country, is one factor. Its corollary is the increasing power and influence of special interest groups each pressing for its own agenda. Curricula based on multiculturalism, on self-esteem, on bilingualism, for example, are put in place presumably to serve the interests of a constituency there is reason to believe does not really benefit from such programs in the long run. The benefits flow—and flow they do—to the bureaucracies that come into being to administer these programs once they are established. It is their interests, and not necessarily the educational interests of the children in our schools, these programs serve.

The current vogue of “multiculturalism” is often a thinly-veiled attempt to do away with the study of the western tradition that has been the source of our political and cultural institutions on the basis of the accusation that it is a “Eurocentric” product of dead white males bent on exploiting the rest of the world.

Knowledge of the people and events that have shaped our culture, its literature, drama, history, biography, poetry, mathematics, religious thought, scientific method and technological achievements, are all but absent in teacher education in America today. It prepares managers, not teachers, and it has little to do with education in the traditional sense.

The fact is that ideas matter, that some cultures and some institutions have contributed more to human happiness and human achievement than others, that the history, literature, and science of western civilization are our patrimony, and that our aim should be to make them understood and shared by all our citizens. It is not racist to suggest that for the black child living in America today the institutions and arts that evolve from Greco-Roman strands, via English and European adaptations to the country and the culture we share today, are just as relevant as for the white child. It makes no more sense for a common school curriculum to be based on elements from an African past than a Polish one or a Korean one. Those are private endeavors, to be left to the home, the family. If it isn’t there, why invent it? A repressive society is one that forbids such expressions of ethnicity. A foolish society is one that substitutes them for the culture to which it should invite every citizen to partake.

It is neither racist nor snobbish to invite everyone who lives in this country to feel part of a common culture as long as all citizens remain free to add to it spontaneously whatever they preserve of other cultural memories or have brought with them from other times and places. But that is an individual endeavor, not the responsibility of the society as a whole. Society’s responsibility is to the heritage of Western civilization, to the democratic form of government which we enjoy and which, imperfect as it is, is the best thing men have devised as a way of living together. Any doubts on that score are easily dispelled by the persistent desire of people from all over the world to leave wherever they are and come here and by the extent of the political changes wrought peacefully in this country in the consistent direction of inclusivity over the past half century.

That culture, that heritage is where we all come from in terms of what has shaped the institutions we value and think are worth preserving, something we cannot do unless we understand and appreciate them and teach our children—all of our children—to know and value them.

It is in this context that it has meaning to read the long line of memorable documents from the Magna Carta to the Federalist Papers: to understand ourselves as a nation. An African-American curriculum is fine if you are going to live in Africa. It is fine as a privately sponsored enterprise reflecting a community’s ethnic pride. It makes no sense at all in the public schools of this country, any more than a Jewish-American curriculum, a Spanish-American curriculum, or a Chinese-American curriculum. These are not the cultures that shaped the institutions that define us as Americans. They all belong in a general overview of our common history and what has influenced and shaped our present state. But if we fragment our sense of nationhood and become a Balkanized collection of special interest groups, something unique in historical experience will have been lost.

The currently fashionable emphasis on self-esteem assumes that children can learn only from others like themselves and that they require “role models” who share their skin color or ethnic background rather than any particular traits of character or stores of knowledge. Pupils will “feel good about themselves,” this theory goes, if we keep telling them they’re doing fine and passing them on to the next grade. Never mind that they are robbed of the sense of accomplishment that comes from real achievement. No one must fail, and if students are failing the test, change the test.

The self-esteem philosophy invades every aspect of teaching these days. “Feeling good about oneself” is supposed to be the basis for any kind of achievement. If you think of yourself as successful, goes this argument, your chances of success are increased. Elementary school teachers are taught to concern themselves with children’s feelings of self-worth, and not with the worth of hard work or of realistically measured accomplishment. And so they do little to help children bring their immediate impulses under control in order to achieve long-range goals that require sustained effort. They don’t teach them that real self-respect comes from real achievement, that it is earned by hard work. Who can really respect himself who has not respected something else first—enough to learn to do it well? If no one is criticized, if no one can fail, what does success mean?

The worst thing about these well-intentioned attempts to teach something that cannot be taught is that it cheats the very students it is meant to help of the very thing they need the most—discipline. The children who come to school without the habits to enable them to focus their attention and master symbolic skills and abstract relationships need to be given that equipment for later success. To pass them through a series of classrooms without it is to ensure that they will feel bad about themselves when they emerge into the real world. And it is still possible to argue that there are better things to esteem than one’s self.

As for the demand that children be taught in the language of the countries their parents left in order to come to this one, a Hispanic father in California summed it up this way: “The schools are teaching my children in Spanish, which prepares them to be busboys; I want them to learn English so they can be lawyers.”

Our schools today seem to exist not so much to teach anything considered of particular value in itself so much as to achieve the aim of educating everyone alike. In this social-engineering scheme, equality of opportunity has been replaced by equality of outcome, the mandate that everyone should come out equal at the end.

Well, perhaps not quite. Some, to drag out that Orwellian war horse again, feel entitled to be more equal than others, a claim they justify on the grounds of past group suffering. A nation-wide contest seems to be underway to determine who among us can claim to have been most victimized and to award prizes accordingly.

For some, this means, in the words of one young man recently graduated from a prestigious eastern college, “putting into place the black agenda.” Or, as the tenured director of curriculum studies at a midwestern university’s school of education put it, “Curriculum is not about content, it’s about empowerment.” What she means is that it doesn’t matter what you teach; what matters is whose interests are being forwarded.

The educational endeavor has not only been politicized; in the process it has been reoriented toward what might be called the psychopathology of education. Since everyone must receive the same education, in the same classroom, at the same time—a requirement imposed by the interpretation of legislation on special education and known as “mainstreaming”—the education culture has become increasingly dominated by learning pathologies and the methods appropriate to the student with learning difficulties—what might be called educational therapy.

Given all of these trends and the necessity of providing solutions to the problems they create, it is no wonder that teacher preparation programs have developed an overwhelming emphasis on techniques, models, methods, “instructional strategies”—everything but knowledge itself. And no wonder that they turn out men and women who know a lot about how to teach but have little or nothing on which to exercise that expertise. They have spent years learning about pedagogy, but have not spent much time learning about history, language, literature, and sciences, mathematics, music or the arts—only about how to teach them.

While the larger political climate that dictates what we ask of our schools is partly to blame for this state of affairs in the institutions that prepare men and women to teach in them, it is not the whole story. There is also the matter of the politics of the teacher-training establishment itself.

There are approximately 1300 institutions, from small private colleges to large state universities, involved in training teachers in this country, including some 150 graduate schools of education. The most prestigious of these are largely concerned with academic status within the university setting, competing for funds with the professional schools of law and medicine, and producing enormous amounts of research, much of it trivial, with much faculty time and energy going into writing grant proposals and designing “learning models.” Little of this is of much help to the classroom teacher.

The elite research universities study education; they do not train people to practice it. They are not oriented towards the goals of credentialing or licensing. They leave that to the big state schools, which, for better or worse, are necessarily more responsive to the community through the pressures of the legislatures.

The graduate school of education has actually become the way of the classroom, to gain professional advancement in school administration, research, academia, foundations; everything but taking orders from district school boards about how to teach fourth-graders. The faculty and alumni of the elite graduate schools define the dominant values of educators and set their political direction. And they have great influence through the media on public opinion. All this in the service of a succession of educational fads that change as arbitrarily as hem lines and determine what will be fashionable this season in the teaching of reading or math. The main thing produced by the educrats is an endless series of reports, usually based on research funded by the government directly or, through tax-exempt foundations, indirectly.

As for the undergraduate schools and colleges of education, the worst of them are certification mills where the minimally qualified instruct the barely literate in a parody of learning. Prospective teachers leave these institutions no more prepared to impart knowledge or inspire learning than when they entered. How can we reconcile the high value we presumably place on schooling with the relatively low standards for entrance into most such programs? Other collegiate departments, with some justification, look on them as dumping grounds.

In between these extremes there stretches a wide range of programs, most of which have in common a set of required courses on methods of teaching and theories of learning that are deadly dull. There is almost universal agreement among classroom teachers that they are too much, too soon. What teachers find useful in their preparatory training is practice teaching and advice from experienced teachers. What they get in the methods courses means little to them until they get into the classroom. And even then what they find useful that can be learned from lectures, readings, and classroom discussion could probably be taught in one intensive summer or a single year of evening classes.

Why then the years of pedagogical training, which produce people who have a lot of information about how to teach but have little or nothing to teach? The answer lies in the vested interests of accredited schools, colleges, and departments of education, graduation from which is tantamount to certification in most states. It lies in the tendency of legislative bodies, unions, state, district, and local school boards to prefer to remain with the status quo. It lies in the inertia which tends to perpetuate all established institutions once they have taken hold. Unfortunately, the status quo is a system that does not produce the teachers we need, the best teachers our children could have.

Should we do away with it entirely? One could make an argument for doing so. But a more realistic solution, it seems to me, is to improve teacher education by minimizing methods courses and integrating them into a strong liberal arts curriculum while raising entrance requirements and standards for graduation, and at the same time introducing flexibility into the certification process.

Reformers of teacher education propose both extending and reducing the time and the requirements of teacher preparation programs. Those who would extend it are the ed school establishment, led by the Holmes Group of deans of graduate schools of education, who propose a fifth year of education courses after earning an academic B.A., with the addition of an internship in supervised teaching. This plan has the advantage of providing for a full four years of substantive learning; only after presumably having acquired mastery of some body of knowledge do prospective teachers turn their attention to ways of imparting what they know.

At the opposite end of the reform spectrum are those who propose alternative routes intended to attract talented college graduates and career-changers by bypassing the educational theory and methods courses and concentrating on learning by doing on the job from experienced teachers.

Those who advocate the alternative approach believe that teaching is more of an art than a science, and that future teachers have more to learn about teaching from current teachers than from college professors. A combination of native intuition, common sense, and experience is thought to be more useful than a knowledge of psychological and sociological theories of learning and particular systems of teaching. And this route is thought to be the one most likely to attract teachers of the most needed subjects: mathematics, science, and foreign languages. Another advantage of alternative certification programs is that they introduce some competition into the teaching marketplace, and may force existing institutions to do better than they have been doing. As long as they possess a monopoly of teaching jobs, they have no such incentive.

Both of these systems of reform would shift the emphasis from learning how to teach to learning what to teach and from what educators call preservice preparation to inservice professional development. What is of real use to teachers in training and to their pupils in the community’s schools is not the “concept,” it’s the practice—time in the classroom with an experienced teacher, who offers tips on how to get across what you know. Provided, of course, you know something.

The present focus of pedagogy to the exclusion of a liberal education means that many prospective teachers will remain practically uneducated in anything but the contentless field of education itself. They will then go into the schools armed not with knowledge so much as with an arsenal of ploys for dealing with the myriad problems they will encounter at a time when teachers are being asked to do more kinds of things for more kinds of children than ever before.

This emphasis goes a long way toward explaining why in many public schools in America today the pupils never read a whole book. Their teachers know how to use textbooks and worksheets and give the tests that are based on them. They would be at a loss to invent an interesting lesson on some book of stories or poems, some novel or biography, lead a discussion afterward, and design a series of written questions which would require students to organize and express their understanding of the work. Why should we expect less than that of teachers? That is what teaching means.

The National Research Council’s findings [“Everybody Counts,” National Academy of Sciences, 1989] on the abysmal level of mathematical ability among U.S. students is surely both a cause and an effect. Three out of four American students leave high school woefully unprepared in both math and science and there is no reason to suppose that all future teachers are drawn from that proportion who are even minimally scientifically and mathematically literate. The colleges of education do not require them to be, and graduation from their programs has traditionally been tantamount to accreditation for teaching.

How much better it would have been, how much more enriching—educational—for prospective teachers to have read one great novel or a biography of some outstanding historical figure in the context of his or her time than to have read all the jargon they are given about “classroom strategies” and “learning theory.” What is the good of all this methodology if there is no knowledge to exercise it on? It would seem that instead of what are called the “foundation” courses on methods of instruction, the real foundation for a teaching career ought to be the knowledge of something to teach—cell biology, the mythology of ancient Greece, the Renaissance in Europe, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the mathematical concepts that underlie computers.

And fundamental to all such knowledge is what usually goes by the name of “the basics.” That no one has yet figured out a way to provide without the currently unpopular way of learning that used to be called “by heart,” whether it’s a matter of drill in performing arithmetical operations or in memorizing facts about events occurring over time. Without starting at the beginning, there isn’t much likelihood of getting very far. Which may be why so many of our students, as they move along the schooling route, find themselves stranded.

It also goes a long way toward explaining why no reform of teacher education programs or teacher certification processes per se will solve the real problem of why our schoolchildren learn so little and our graduates know so much less than they should.

Doing that will require something far more radical—nothing less than raising requirements all along the spectrum of schooling, so as to make schooling synonymous with education and learning a corollary of teaching.

In the attempt to make everyone seem as equal as possible, college standards have been lowered both for admission and for graduation. And since almost anyone can get into college somewhere, no one has to work particularly hard to do so. High school graduation requirements have softened continually over the years, with the results that succeeding National Assessments of Educational Progress have made abundantly clear. We confer high school diplomas on students who often cannot handle the simplest math operations and who consistently rate at or near the bottom of international comparisons of math performance.

The problem is that our teachers don’t know enough math and science to teach it to their pupils. They themselves are products of the system that requires little of its high school graduates and little more of it baccalaureates, whose education courses then train them to be social workers rather than develop the meager intellectual skills they bring with them to graduate study and beyond, to the classroom.

This is a state of affairs that has resulted from the primacy of the idea that achieving equality of attainment should be the goal of the public school system. Since human beings inevitably differ in capacities, interests, and motivation, in order to bring everyone to the same level, what is required will have to be within the capacities of the less capable, the indifferent, and the distracted.

When almost everyone passes and almost everyone gets a degree—in spite of any strict and objective measures of achievement—what is lost is the meaning of the degree and the knowledge and skills it is supposed to attest to. That loss is felt both by individuals and by society as a whole, robbed of the potential of the exceptional individuals among us. Very little in the present public education system is designed to stimulate or encourage their potential. Even the remaining outposts designed for the education of the gifted, such as specialized high schools of science, have seen an erosion of entrance requirements, then of curriculum, and eventually of graduation standards in the face of political demands that the student body reflect race and sex ratios in the population as a whole.

The message of all the surveys, tests, and reports that show how little our students know and how little their teachers have to teach them comes home most tellingly in the studies comparing them with students in other countries, whose schools demand more of them. More classroom time spent on academics, more homework, and tougher exams. Nothing has proved to inspire effort, to concentrate the mind, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson’s famous epigram, like the necessity of passing a hard test. When stiff exams determine admission to the next step up the educational ladder, the youngster who wants to continue upward will work hard for long hours whether or not his teacher appreciates his ethnicity, whether or not his classroom is nicely furnished. The youngster who doesn’t care will, to be sure, fall behind. What we have to ask ourselves as a society—as parents, citizens, and educators—is what price we are willing to pay to give that youngster a degree anyway, and what good it does him or us to bolster his self-esteem at the cost of devaluing real knowledge.

The problem of teacher ignorance is the problem of college graduates who don’t know what they should because they were graduated from high school without knowing what they should, having come from elementary school with poor reading skills and inadequate content knowledge. The solution begins in first grade with not passing children into second grade if they can’t read and deal with simple numbers. The emphasis on providing “at-risk” students with self-esteem rather than holding them to meaningful standards means they aren’t provided with anything else, and the notion that what they are given will hold up against the tests of the real world or that it is any substitute for knowing some thing is a patronizing one that is ultimately harmful to these very children. If we owe them anything, it is a real, not a make-believe, education and a starting chance at the kind of skills and comprehension that will enable them to find a place in an increasingly sophisticated world of work.

Clearly, then, the alternative route to teacher certification is no panacea. It will only be as effective as the individuals it attracts. It provides a potential means of improving the quality of teaching by replacing the emphasis on methodology with a focus on the intellectual disciplines to be taught. But in the end it all comes back to the question of what it means to be an educated person in this society today. Until a college degree guarantees the possession of some real body of knowledge, and the acquisition and transmission of knowledge is understood to be the function of educating institutions, rather than the implementation of a social/political agenda, we are lost and likely to remain so.

In order to have the kind of teachers we need—able to enrich our children’s lives by preparing them to understand and cope effectively with their increasingly complex world—we will have to change the system that prepares the teachers. By depoliticizing teacher certification, raising academic standards and stressing knowledge rather than technique, we could make a beginning.

About the Author

Rita Kramer has received national acclaim from her new book, Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers, which is based on her observations while visiting schools and departments of education in colleges and universities throughout the country during the 1988-89 academic year.

Mrs. Kramer was brought up in the midwest. A graduate of the University of Chicago, she studies English literature at Columbia University and worked as an editor for several New York publishing houses—including Random House, Simon and Schuster, and Harper and Row—before beginning to write regularly on aspects of child development and early childhood education for various magazines and journals; her articles appeared regularly on the Parent/Child page of the New York Times Magazine from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, during which time she also served as coordinator of infancy research for CBS Learning Center, a position she left to co-author her first book, How to Raise a Human Being.

Mrs. Kramer is the author of Maria Montessori: A Biography; Giving Birth: Childbearing in America Today; In Defense of the Family: Raising Children in America Today and At a Tender Age: Violent Youth and Juvenile Justice. She has served on the Elementary Education Study Group and the Elementary School Recognition Panel of the U.S. Department of Education, and is the author of articles and reviews that have appeared in American Heritage, Commentary, The American Spectator, The Wilson Quarterly and other magazines and anthologies in the United States and abroad. Her fiction has appeared in various literary quarterlies.