Why Teachers Can’t Teach

Because they don’t know anything. Teacher education is a massive fraud. It drives out dedicated people, rewards incompetence, and wastes millions of dollars. Our taxes pay for it all, but our children pay the real price.

September 1979By Comments

Fifty per cent of DISD teachers fail to pass test, said the headline in the Dallas Times Herald last summer, and the wire services relayed the news to much of the civilized world. Poor Dallas. Twenty years in court over desegregation and busing, and now this. Actually, the Wesman Personnel Classification Test was given not to all Dallas teachers but to 535 first-year teachers. Half fell below the score considered acceptable by the DISD—and that standard itself was far from rigorous. The teachers were considerably outperformed on the same test by a volunteer group of juniors and seniors from Jesuit College Preparatory School, a private high school in North Dallas.

Less well publicized, but equally disturbing, was the Houston Independent School District’s discovery at about the same time that fully half its teacher applicants scored lower in mathematical achievement than the average high school junior; about a third were similarly defective in using the English language.

Before those whose children are enrolled in districts other than Dallas or Houston congratulate themselves, they should ponder this: every school system in Texas gets its teachers from exactly the same places Dallas and Houston do—the 63 accredited teacher-training institutions in the state. Teachers just as poorly prepared are opening school this fall from Amarillo to Brownsville, Orange to El Paso—teachers who cannot read as well as the average sixteen-year-old, write notes free of barbarisms to parents, or handle arithmetic well enough to keep track of the field-trip money.

How can this be? Texas spends a staggering amount of money on education—more than half the state budget, or $4 billion in 1978. And that doesn’t include another $397 million in federal funds. What are we getting for our dollars? What happened to the era, not so long ago, really, when teachers were rightfully respected as the best-educated people in the community? And now they can’t outperform high school juniors. How has it come to this?

Everybody has a suspect: integration, segregation, permissiveness, regimentation, the Viet Nam War, drugs, television, divorce, the suburbs, the inner city—everything but sunspots and the phases of the moon. Conditioned by decades of propaganda from professional educators, we indict society, which cannot defend itself. But the educators themselves are largely to blame, and in particular the teacher colleges, which are their single most harmful creation—harmful both in coddling ignorance and in driving self-respecting students away. Backed by hometown legislators, these colleges have no effective political opposition and are accountable to no one. They turn out hordes of certified ignoramuses whose incompetence in turn becomes evidence that the teacher colleges and the educators need yet more money and more power.

Under pressure from taxpayers and the federal courts, the DISD resorted to the Wesman test because it has learned that the teacher colleges cannot be trusted. Transcripts are a sham; letters of recommendation promiscuous. Certified teachers are pouring out of those 63 colleges like the mops and water buckets that overwhelmed poor Mickey Mouse in Disney’s Fantasia. There is at present a glut of teachers in most subject areas (mathematics and science being an exception due to better opportunities elsewhere), but without some reliable way of distinguishing among applicants, the DISD’s surplus of applicants might as well have been a shortage. Hence the Wesman test and subsequent follies.

Troubled and irritated by what the DISD experience seemed to suggest—and versions of it are being repeated all over the United States—I formulated two simple questions and undertook a journey through the wonderland of teacher education in search of enlightenment. Those questions were: How did such incompetents gain Texas teaching certificates? And What on earth did they do in college? Having spent a number of years as a college teacher, I had some idea of what was going on, but the things I found out still took my breath away. The business of teacher education in Texas—as everywhere else in America—is a shame, a mammoth and very expensive swindle of the public interest, a hoax, and an intellectual disgrace. So come along. Until you have been there, you will never quite believe it.

To understand how the teaching profession has degraded itself, you must grasp fully the closed and circular nature of our public educational system and a little bit about how it got that way. Around the turn of the century certain of the pedagogical theories of John Dewey were seized upon by “progressive” educators anxious to reform the authoritarian rote and memorization practices of the time. Dewey was one of America’s handful of genuine philosophers, but like many another seminal thinker’s, his theories have been misrepresented and wrongly applied so long and widely that today’s educational dogma almost parodies the practices he urged. After eighty years Dewey’s arguments in favor of student-centered rather than subject-centered approaches to learning have resulted in schools of education that stress method over subject matter to the point that would-be teachers spend all of their time learning how to teach. What to teach has unfortunately perished in the transition. A now self-evident truth—that a certain amount of pedagogical training beyond mere book knowledge is useful—has been used by the Educationists to create a tax-supported empire of cant.

By Educationists I mean the officers rather than the enlisted men—the deans and professors of education, school administrators, the bureaucrats at organizations like the Texas Education Agency and the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the chief beneficiaries, in short, of things as they are. It is very simple: unless and until you have completed basic training as mandated by the Educationists, you cannot teach in a public school. In Texas there is no standard other than the completion of a bachelor’s degree with the required number of education courses. As matters stand, no graduate of a TEA-approved teacher-training program, no matter how incompetent, is excluded from the profession. There is no test, no qualifying exam. Nobody else, no matter how learned or capable, is admitted. In order to join the officer class, to become, in other words, anything from assistant principal of an elementary school in San Angelo to director of the TEA, graduate training in education is a necessity. Otherwise there is no use applying.

Compare, for example, journalism. Most of the 63 teacher-training colleges in Texas also have journalism departments. Academic journalism is like education in that both are disciplines based upon pragmatic skills; they have no subject matter of their own. As matters stand, however, almost anybody can get a job in publishing or broadcasting if the people in charge think he can write, edit, or perform other necessary skills. Ability to do the thing at hand is deemed sufficient license to practice, and the best judges are assumed to be persons who have shown themselves to be competent. Nobody I know in the trade would ever take for granted that a college degree in journalism was on its face indicative of anything except that the bearer had passed a certain amount of time in the proximity of a college or a university. Graduate journalism is mostly for persons who want to be journalism professors; the university, as we shall see more than once, is a world of its own. Most private schools, which are not accountable to the Texas education establishment, similarly take a dim view of education majors.

Perhaps our ancestors were wiser than we are. Before normal schools grew into teacher colleges and later metamorphosed into universities, basic literacy of the kind the DISD was testing for was not merely expected of would-be teachers, it was required. “No pupil should be allowed in the normal school,” reads the 1904 announcement of what is now Southwest Texas State University, “without standing a reasonably fair examination upon the branches taught in the free public schools.”

Novels of that period often portrayed the schoolteacher as a figure of fun—a prig, pedant, or old-womanish prude—but never as a dimwit. Learning was respected. But as soon as everyone started going to college, the status of the teacher as the community guardian and source of knowledge was endangered. The profession responded the way of all professions threatened with encroachment: it closed the shop. Since teachers no longer had a monopoly on knowledge, they focused on their one remaining exclusive possession: teacher education. In 1955 the Legislature made graduation from an accredited teacher-training program a prerequisite for a teaching certificate. Like most bureaucratic entities with monopolistic tendencies—the Pentagon comes to mind—the Educationist establishment has three essential and closely related functions besides the nominal one of teaching kids. They are: to grow, to protect the profession from competition, and to ward off outside scrutiny.

Central to all three functions is the establishment and elaboration of dogma. Ask hard questions of almost anyone involved with teacher education—the Texas Education Agency, the colleges and their education departments, the school districts and their teachers—and the chances are the first response will be to kick the problem downstairs. The TEA insists it is powerless to demand competence due to political pressure exerted on the Legislature by the colleges. The colleges insist they must assume prospective teachers to be literate when they arrive from the high schools. High school teachers say they cannot ignore the subject matter in their courses to teach skills that should have been mastered in junior high. Eighth-grade teachers blame seventh-grade teachers, and so forth back to first grade, where teachers have no one left to blame but society, which they do. The NEA (National Education Association), the chief proponent of no-fault teaching, urges us in a pamphlet to take note, before deciding who is responsible for plummeting test scores, of the “distractions which characterized American life in the past decade or so.” Among the nominees are the war, the draft, riots, corruption in high places, assassinations, and television. The “decade of distraction,” we are told, “puts an additional burden on teachers who are asked to provide stability while other aspects of life are in chaos.” If everyone is to blame, in other words, no one is to blame.

It is considered rude to point out that all of the above except television have been constants of America’s and everybody else’s history, and that further disruption outside the classroom may confidently be predicted. Society, moreover, cannot be fired or have its budget cut. All it can do is feel guilty and go to PTA meetings.

The same NEA pamphlet quoted above, written as a response to public concern over declining test scores, urges us to remain philosophical: “While we ask why the scores on college entrance examinations have gone down, T. S. Eliot’s probing goes much deeper: ‘Where is the learning we have lost in information? Where is the understanding we have lost in knowledge? Where is the life we have lost in living?’” As usual, the Educationists are changing the subject. Eliot was asking a religious question about man’s quest for wisdom and his fear of inauthenticity; we want to know about test scores. By quoting him, the NEA seeks a classy way to preserve that most sanctified of Educationist principles, that of the Whole Child. (During the sixties it was called “relevance” but the same thing was meant.) According to that doctrine, so prevalent among professional educators that it is invisible to them much of the time, to insist upon literacy is considered coercive and potentially harmful; secondary matters such as sex education, driver training, drug counseling, and the proper attitude toward siblings are equally necessary. Many of these goals are, of course, worthy. But they are secondary. Everywhere but in the education school, that is.

For the Educationists, the doctrine of the Whole Child is a magical balm that washes away their sins. Ask a question about skills, and you get T. S. Eliot, transforming the question to one about values. Who is a happier and more productive member of the human community, an illiterate peasant or a tax lawyer? Values, of course, are relative. What then is the point of having tests at all, whether of students or teachers? By a marvelous coincidence, the NEA was holding its national convention in Dallas last summer at about the same time the bad news about the DISD teachers was breaking. Hardly ruffled, the nation’s largest teachers’ organization paused just long enough in its deliberations to pass a resolution condemning competency testing. Should public unrest persist, we may yet hear the NEA citing Ecclesiastes: “He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

To be sure, not all teachers agree. The American Federation of Teachers, affiliated with the AFL-CIO, favors competency testing, the Dallas NEA affiliate has no objection, and many teachers I talked with felt the NEA, as one high school teacher put it, “made us look like a bunch of cowardly blockheads.” But unless you understand that the NEA was being perfectly sincere, not defensive or cowardly, you don’t understand the Educationists’ world view in its fullest incarnation. For this I recommend that you read the aforementioned pamphlet, entitled On Further Examination of “On Further Examination.” Naturally the document contains the obligatory attack on competency tests for cultural bias and the obligatory defense of teachers against charges that they are in any way responsible for whatever may be wrong with American education. But what really caught my eye was the suggestion that competency tests are not just unfair but actually dangerous.

As an example of the NEA’s reasoning, consider its reaction to the idea of exit examinations that would ask students to prove, in order to graduate, that they had actually learned what they are assumed to have been taught: “Once we establish minimal competencies we tend to get just that—minimal competence. One would hope for considerably more than this.” Of course one would. One would also hope for more from the NEA than an assertion so contrary to common sense. No soap.

Equally revealing is the section titled “About the Future.” “It is unlikely,” the NEA contends, “that eighth-grade teachers would think it appropriate to give a test to one eighth-grade class in 1970 and to another eighth-grade class seven years later and expect the difference in scores to say anything useful. What would such a difference in scores mean? That the teacher is better or worse? That the students have gotten smarter or dumber? That societal values have changed? That our knowledge base is different? Can we, in fact, compare children of one set of circumstances with those of another?” The paragraph closes with a slap at those who “believe that there is a single unchanging standard which can be measured and compared across time” and asks, “Is this a realistic assumption?”

To this I can only reply: of course it is. I completed the eighth grade in 1957. There is no question that societal values have undergone considerable change in the 22 years intervening, and that the sum of human knowledge is greater than it was then. But the last time I checked, three 9’s still equaled 27, nouns and verbs still had to agree, and the nation of Italy continued to extend into the Mediterranean Sea and somewhat resembled a boot. Test results in Dallas, Houston, and elsewhere suggest that large numbers of certified teachers are not capable of passing on such skills and bits of knowledge because they have no command of them to begin with. Educationists are afflicted with a cultural relativism so profound it has become an intellectual disease. The obvious proposition that values are relative has been warped to signify the opposite of what it really means: that some facts and ideas are more important than others. In Educationese it means that they are equally arbitrary. Hence charges of cultural bias, where bias is defined as requiring literacy and the kind of knowledge rarely gained by hanging out on street corners or watching soap operas.

The products of the Educationist monopoly descend upon the colleges and universities, which, like the rest of the bureaucracy, are committed to permanent growth. Having long ago surrendered to the twin deities of egalitarianism and vocational training, colleges and universities have lost control of their own curricula. On most campuses, there is a continuing low-grade conflict between the basic, traditional academic disciplines, in which fundamental intellectual skills are supposed to be taught, and the vocational programs. Job training is winning everywhere—in too many instances a sort of job training that leaves students unprepared for the profession they think they are ready to enter and insufficiently educated to adjust when the jobs don’t materialize. Philosophy shrinks almost out of existence, while fashion merchandising advances.

So the catalog grows thicker by the year, and students have a promiscuous choice of courses that are the intellectual equivalent of puffed wheat: one kernel of knowledge inflated by means of hot air, divided into pieces, and puffed again. The vast majority of such courses are graded, if at all, by multiple-choice or true-false exams. In those rare instances where written work is given, grammar, punctuation, and style are seen to be the business of the English department alone. Nobody in most departments really has any idea whether his students are fully literate; very likely he has never asked them to write. (Perhaps that is just as well, given the kind of jargon-laden, semiliterate humbug that is the going thing in far too many disciplines.) American higher education has been drifting in this direction for some time. The public schools, dominated by Educationists, have already been there for quite a while. Very bright students who catch on early or who come from educated families may escape with a few skills; the rest are defrauded into believing they have an education.

When I was in school I always assumed that teachers were persons who had been very good students themselves. Some facts compiled by the Coordinating Board of the Texas College and University System make it clear that such is not the case today—at least, not until they enroll in the school of education, where everyone is transformed into an A student.

Of the 10,120 new teachers who graduated in Texas colleges in 1978, 8273, or roughly 80 per cent, attended public institutions. The greatest number, 869, came from Southwest Texas State University at San Marcos. North Texas graduated 648, East Texas 601, Stephen F. Austin 491. Of the larger schools, UT-Austin graduated 690, Texas Tech 623, Texas A&M 453, the University of Houston 362, and so on. In the private sector only Baylor prepares teachers in large numbers, graduating an even 400. SMU was next with 73. Rice graduated exactly 1. The higher a college’s entrance requirements and general academic reputation, the lower the percentage of certified-teacher graduates in its graduating class. Smart kids with good high school records avoid teacher training.

Most education majors come from lower-middle- or low-income backgrounds and often from families in which they are the first generation to attend college. I mean no condescension here: I am such a person myself. Those are the facts. Another fact is that entrance requirements at the schools that prepare the largest number of teachers are quite low. To matriculate at Southwest Texas State, for example, one need only to graduate from high school and score 13 on the ACT (American College Testing Program) test, a figure corresponding roughly to a 750 combined score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)—far below the average of all high school seniors, and ranking in about the 35th percentile nationally. Anyone who still can’t meet what are loosely called the “standards” may attend junior college and transfer to Southwest Texas or any public four-year college after two years of maintaining a C average.

A statistical profile of the Southwest Texas freshman class of 1977 shows that entering freshmen who declared education as their major had the lowest mean test scores of any entering group. Their ACT scores corresponded roughly to an SAT score of 825—still quite below the national average. Reasonable people disagree about whether the ACT and SAT tests measure intelligence or achievement; they probably measure a little of both. What nobody denies is that they are good predictors of academic success.

It is easy to say that higher scores and better grades should be required, but the situation is more complicated: many educators believe we are headed within a decade for the worst teacher shortage since the early sixties, particularly in mathematics and the sciences. Short of unforeseeable and quite unlikely changes in the relative economics of the teaching profession, such a tightening of entrance requirements would eventually be self-defeating.

But one needn’t be a Phi Beta Kappa to teach elementary school, nor a Rhodes scholar to do an adequate job in a high school classroom. Persons of normal intelligence who have had halfway-decent schooling to which they have applied themselves at all should have nothing to fear from such a test as the Wesman and ought to be able to produce a paragraph free of barbarisms. Unfortunately, most college education programs are even less rigorous than the entrance standards. A recent study at the University of Houston reported that during the spring semester of 1977, the secondary education department awarded A’s to 76.5 per cent of the students in its courses. Another 13.5 per cent received B’s, 1.4 per cent C’s, and the rest were incompletes or withdrawals. No grades of D or F were recorded the entire semester. To show the direction things on campus are headed, in 1966 the grade breakdown for the same department was 23 per cent A’s, 46 per cent B’s, and 22 per cent C’s—not exactly rigorous, but at least defensible.

Think that’s an isolated case? Then compare elementary education for the same 1977 semester: 70 per cent A’s, 23 per cent B’s, 3 per cent C’s. But wait: there was one D handed out. (One hesitates to think what that poor solitary kid must have done to deserve such ignominy.) Nobody failed. Nobody failed. Not one student in elementary or secondary education was too dumb or too lazy to pass. Nobody failed to show up for an exam, nobody failed to hand in his work, nobody just up and disappeared without a trace. Maybe this was a particularly worthy crop of aspiring teachers; maybe they will emerge to reverse the decline of learning in the public schools. But I think I am justified in being skeptical. Nor is there any reason at all to believe the University of Houston is more lax than other schools; it merely had the courage to gather and release the data.

What is the cause of grade inflation? It is simple: all public colleges, and all their divisions and departments, get their operating budgets from the state according to formulas based almost entirely upon the number of students enrolled. Is it any wonder that elementary-education students at Southwest Texas State are allowed no electives whatsoever in four years? The departments get more money by getting bigger, less many by getting smaller. Sufficient shrinkage can lead to loss of jobs. In this atmosphere, academic rigor that caused students to drop out or transfer to a less demanding field of study would be a financial liability. Grade inflation is built into the system; it is a matter of survival.

This is also the key to understanding the puffed-wheat curriculum and the self-perpetuating nature of the Educationist empire. Consider the following examples selected from among the 361 separate education courses listed in the catalog at Southwest Texas. There it is possible to earn three hours of college credit by taking “Materials for Rhythmical Activities,” “Administering Leisure Delivery Systems,” “Motorcycle Safety and Rider Education,” or my personal favorite, a graduate course called “Administration and Supervision of Driver Education.” School administrators are drawn almost entirely from the ranks of true believers or hypocrites who will sit in such courses placidly taking notes while fools dissect, categorize, and elaborate upon the perfectly obvious. If you don’t believe me, come along to Southwest Texas State University, though stand forewarned that unless you are already quite familiar with what goes on in education departments, much of what you are about to read will seem so far removed from your concept of learning that it will seem a transmission from an alien planet.

I chose to visit Southwest Texas simply because the most teachers are trained there. Among school administrators in Central Texas, where most of its graduates end up, it is regarded as a cut above average, something I had to keep reminding myself as I toured the campus. Walking around on a sunny spring day, I could not help but be struck by the juxtaposition of the institution’s monolithic new architecture—hermetically sealed buildings looking as though they were designed to withstand nuclear attack—and the fact that every inch of unshaded grass was covered with roasting young women in bikinis. Judging from what students told me, maintaining a 2.0, or C, average at SWT, which is what is required for entry into the teacher-certification program, seems to be no harder than at the University of Houston or any of the other schools that produce the vast majority of Texas’ teachers.

The School of Education contains five departments: physical education, industrial arts, psychology, education, and special education. It offers 27 different undergraduate and graduate degrees, most of them with specialized options that make a student’s choices seem almost exponential. It is now possible—indeed, to get certain kinds of jobs it is mandatory—to secure a degree in elementary education with an emphasis in a specialty like geography, though why an adult would need to specialize in order to stay ahead of a class of third-graders is not explained in the catalog. Since identifying the folly of a semester-long graduate driver education course would be no more difficult than finding a drunk in a roadhouse on Saturday night, I decided to stick to undergraduate classes required of everyone hoping to become certified.

Education 3320, “The Elementary School: Principles and Curriculum,” is required for certification and has several sections. The one I attended was team-taught by professors Bob Williamson, director of elementary education at SWT, and Hal Blythe. Both men have doctorates in education administration, and both have been elementary-school teachers and principals.

I asked Blythe whether all, or even the majority, of Southwest Texas State elementary-education majors emerge into their junior-level courses fully literate in basic areas of knowledge. “No, they don’t,” he said, but added, “By the time they get this far, you can hardly do anything about it.” He went on to relate a tale of how, in his first year at the college, he attempted to prevent a student of his who was functionally illiterate from receiving a degree and the automatic teacher certification that goes with it. “Pressure came down from above,” he said, “and I was on the griddle. It turned out that he already had a job.” Blythe gave the clear impression that he had learned a rueful lesson about the realities of academic power and would be quite reluctant to climb onto the griddle again. He did say the continuing certification of incompetent teachers was, in his words, “a cop-out,” but confessed that when the time came to fail or fire those who deserved the fate, “We—and in this case I’m talking about all of us—simply don’t have the guts to do it.” At the same time, however, both he and Williamson spoke with eager concern about the necessity that elementary teachers, especially, have what the two professors call “human-relations skills,” and about their frustrations as former principals with “teachers who could pass paper and pencil tests but who could not relate to people.”

Elementary Education 3320, which has no textbook and seems to require no original written work, is clearly aimed at human-relations, not paper and pencil, skills. On the day I attended, the class of 40 (38 of them young women) was divided into three groups of roughly equal size in a large, open classroom. Two of the groups were seated at large tables taking notes from, or drumming their fingertips to, separate recorded lectures of what I took to be a vaguely inspirational nature. The third group was seated in front of a television monitor watching videotape cassettes of themselves and other members of their group teaching each other various elementary-school lessons. As they watched, they were filling in evaluative forms to be presented to the individual for her private edification. Blythe and Williamson stayed behind them, filling out identical forms and occasionally coming forward to whisper a private note of criticism or encouragement to the student on the screen: face the class, summon students to the blackboard instead of calling for volunteers, involve the quiet students as well as those with their hands always in the air, smile.

Because the students on the tape were not real kids, but college students pretending to be kids, the whole exercise had an air of “let’s pretend,” like sorority sisters rehearsing a skit for rush week. In an attempt to overcome this problem, Blythe and Williamson sometimes distribute what they call “role-playing cards,” which direct the recipients to act up in a childlike manner (is there a card somewhere reading URINATE IN YOUR CHAIR?), a tactic that, although I did not see it used, would seem likely to make what is already a bit silly become downright absurd. As the spring term was nearly over, I took what I was seeing on the cassettes to be the result of an entire semester’s work—which, when I checked the course syllabus, turned out to be true.

I came away with two conclusions. One was that the course was clearly, if not intentionally, set up so that it required a minimum of outside work, kept professors off the griddle on the question of literacy, and was virtually impossible to fail. To give an F or even a C in such a course would be almost impossible without a display of obvious feeblemindedness or paralyzing stage fright on a prospective teacher’s part. Where there is no subject matter, only method, the bad news never gets delivered.

My second conclusion was that enormous amounts of money, energy, and time were wasted by forcing forty students to come to class a couple of times a week for four months. They go less individual guidance and useful experience than they could get in two weeks if, instead of being isolated on a small-town campus and working on their suntans (and the majority looked as if they had just returned from the Bahamas), they were apprenticed after securing honest college degrees to proven and experienced master teachers in actual classrooms with real kids. I asked Williamson if something like that would not make more sense. “You know how I’m going to react to that,” he said. “You’re talking about my job.”

Education 3330, “The Secondary School: Principles and Procedures,” is a methods course required for teaching above the elementary level. The dean the department head commended to me Professor Lowell Bynum, whose doctorate is in secondary education, and who has many years of experience as a band director and a principal at both the elementary and secondary levels. His class was conducted in a room equipped with two walls of one-way glass so observers could watch and listen without disturbing things inside.

On the day I visited his class, again toward the end of the semester, the atmosphere among Bynum’s ten or so students—he divides his sections into thirds and meets with them separately—was somewhere between manic and hilarious. Like their counterparts in elementary education, Bynum’s charges were spending the hour evaluating videotape cassettes of themselves and their classmates. The tool for this was a mimeographed handout obscurely titled “Refocusing Reteach.” Down the left side of the form Bynum had listed six of what he styled “Instructional Objectives for this Teach.” Four of those six categories used the word “unique” to describe the quality sought. Another had to do with observing time limits—secondary-school teachers are now advised to change their approach at least three, and preferably four, times each hour, like TV newsmen. The other category dealt with “specific refocusing skills.” Bynum seemed to be interested in originality. He certainly got it.

First up was a would-be English teacher who wished to discuss with her classmates the subject of legendary heroes. Or rather, she wished them to name a few. She offered as an example Odysseus. Somebody else mentioned Abraham Lincoln. Luckily for adherents of realism, these role players were not much removed in age or maturity from the adolescents they were supposed to portray, so as would no doubt happen just as quickly in most junior high school classrooms, someone mentioned Roger Staubach and basketball’s “Dr. J,” Julius Erving. One would hope that the teacher-to-be would have drawn the students out a bit on the difference between literary, historical, and “living” legends, but naming was as far as it got.

Next up was a tennis lesson. On tactics. In a classroom. The putative coach called to the front of the room two students, a man and a woman. The man was introduced as bad-tempered and impatient. She was a steady, dependable, low-key sort of person, good at restraining her emotions. How should she play him? “She should hit the ball real close to the lines to make him blow up,” a student volunteered. The coach allowed as how that made a lot of sense, proving not only that tennis cannot be taught in a classroom, but that he couldn’t teach it on a court either: the correct strategy in so paradigmatic a case is to imitate a backboard and let the impatient player make all the errors. I never did figure out what specific skills were being refocused by issuing the two students rackets and a ball and having them hit it back and forth at a distance of about four feet, but a good time, I can assure you, was had by all.

A social-studies teaching prospect bunched the entire class into a corner to demonstrate the presumed discomforts of overcrowding. “People in Harris County are getting uneasy” seemed to be the point. More hilarity. Another social-studies trainee did a reasonably funny impersonation of the first woman president holding a press conference. The rest of the class imitated the press corps and asked questions about her private life, most of them containing the kind of guffawing sexual innuendo familiar to watchers of Johnny Carson. A “creative-writing teacher” stressed creativity by spreading out on a desk a collection of small items, most of them from the supermarket, and asking each student to combine any two to make a new product. Thus were invented “coach’s liquid pizza” (by the tennis instructor), “spray-on peanut butter,” and “condensed water.” What these students were good at, I began to see, was imitating television skits, since that is where they are getting the bulk of their real education. I began to wonder if I had not wandered into a class for stand-up comedians. Everybody was having a grand time, and why not? Everybody was getting an A, or at worst a B.

One student with hopes of teaching journalism passed around blank sheets of paper accompanied by a list of news stories ranging from ax murders to international treaties and invited her classmates to cooperate in laying out the first two pages of a “conservative” and a “sensational” newspaper, which struck me as the most, and indeed only, useful idea I had heard. It seemed to provoke fewer laughs than the others, however, so I feared for the poor woman’s grade. The most appalling example from my point of view as a former literature teacher, however, was the TV College Bowl quiz format invented by another would-be English teacher—appalling not only in its reliance on the tube but also for its revelations about unlettered students. For a five-point toss-up, nobody could name a single work by either Tolstoy or Stendhal. The quiz-master knew one, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, but had not read it herself and conceded to her groaning classmates that “it’s not well known.” For another five-pointer nobody could summon the name of the man who wrote Lord Jim. Remember now, we are not talking about real high school students but college seniors, and about college seniors, moreover, who will be in Texas high schools as teachers by the time you read this article, none of whom knew who wrote War and Peace or the name Joseph Conrad.

Back to the quiz. William F. Buckley was identified without demur as a senator from New York, not as the brother of James, the real former senator. Apparently the editorial page of the daily newspaper is as remote from the students’ consciousness as Napoleonic France. But all is not lost. “Name a novel by Jacqueline Susann” brought a cascade of shouted responses: “Valley of the Dolls, Once Is Not Enough…” Those are all I know. Several of the students at Southwest Texas State were four titles deep.

Afterward, Professor Bynum got up for a brief set of closing remarks. He stressed the artificial nature of teaching one’s peers in front of a television camera, a small group with no discipline problems. He categorized most of what he had seen as “teacher-centered learning” and hoped they would remember there are other methods. “If you end up as one of those teachers who comes in and says, ‘Read chapter three and answer the question,’” he said as a parting shot, “that noise you hear at the window will be me. I’ll be back to haunt you.” God forbid, I thought, that they should ever ask anybody to read and write. Anything but Jacqueline Susann, that is.

If schools of education were in the business of producing fully literate adult professionals, such nonsense as I have described above would be hooted out of the catalog. Instead, gifted students are forced to choose between certifying to teach and getting a decent education. Who can say how many potentially fine young teachers are lost to public education each year because they have too much self-respect to submit themselves to such play-acting? When both the ambitious and the idealistic are eliminated in large numbers, the incompetent fill the gap. But who is going to change the system? Not the Educationists: “You’re talking about my job.”

If anything, the impetus is moving the other way, toward more specialization and more education courses, away from basic knowledge. The going thing these days, if you’re thinking about getting into teacher, is bilingual education. Accordingly a clamor is rising in the education schools to “upgrade” the degree required from a BEd (or MEd) with bilingual specialization to a degree in bilingual education itself. This will have the dual effect not only of providing yet more courses for an expanded faculty to teach, but of rendering obsolete the credentials of teachers in the field, whose job mobility will be threatened unless they return to school to secure the new degree. And so on. The same “upgrading” has already occurred in such growth areas as special education, learning disabilities, and reading.

With their locomotive rolling along so well, the Educationists never stop to ask if it might be on the wrong track. Ask them about the problem of literacy and they will either deny that there is a problem or that they have any responsibility for or ability to change it. All those I talked with at Southwest Texas State are sure their graduates could not be among those teachers failing basic literacy tests. No one, however, has tried to find out. In that Southwest Texas is not unique: DISD assistant superintendent John Santillo told me that no one from any teacher-training institution in Texas has contacted him to find out how its graduates have done. Several faculty members in education at SWT professed never to have heard anything about the Dallas or Houston competency tests, which must not only place them among the minority of literate Texas adults but, more to the point, shows how little concern or connection they have with how their theories are faring in the outside world. And no wonder: “You’re talking about my job.”

The self-deception can go to astonishing lengths. In the SWT School of Education’s report to the TEA I learned of a school policy that all prospective teachers must be grounded in “what is [sic] regarded as the basic areas of knowledge.” An accompanying letter from the chairman of the English department, which is responsible for twelve hours of this basic knowledge, assures the TEA that Southwest Texas has “put more emphasis on literate writing for all students who are graduated from the University by helping to reinstate a committee maintained by our faculty senate to caretake writing proficiency.” Passing over the subject-verb agreement problem in the policy statement and the fact that the chairman of the English department employs a verb, “to caretake,” that does not exist in the English language, I decided to go to the English department to see if they thought all SWT graduates were indeed literate.

The watchdog committee so proudly described by the department chairman as insuring the literacy of SWT graduates turns out never to have met. Three separate complaints about any given student are required before action can be considered. Outside the English department, I was told, the odds are that a junior or senior student at Southwest Texas will not encounter three professors who require written work, much less three willing to turn in a student to a faculty committee for inability to do same. In any event, the committee has had no reason to meet, because no one has ever been referred to it.

At the English department I asked Professor Lois Haney, the department’s liaison with the School of Education, how students are able to get through twelve hours of English without ever learning about such arcana as basic punctuation. Her answer was something I had heard before: “It is a matter of self-preservation,” she told me, “not just for the profession as a whole, but for the individual teacher. I’m teaching a methods course for students who will be teaching high school English in a year or two. If I flunked seventy-five to eighty per cent of them, what would happen to my job?”

Haney told me a story about a student whose practice teaching she was assigned to oversee in an area high school. When it came time to prepare a unit on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the young woman found herself in some difficulty, as she had never read so much as a line of Shakespeare in high school or college, and when she tried, found she could not make heads or tails of it. She gave in to tears and changed her career plans, a heartening conclusion, actually. Supervising teachers I spoke to in Dallas told me of protracted conflicts with education professors determined not to allow a mere teacher to prevent their young charges from scoring high on their nine weeks of practice teaching, even when the prospects were so ill-educated that the brighter high school pupils reacted with incredulity and derision.

The Teacher Education and Teacher Certification divisions of the Texas Education Agency occupy two identical examples of file-cabinet architecture located along the Colorado River in South Austin, about a mile from the Capitol. Considering that Texas has been investing in public education since 1854, it is a relatively young agency, created during an overhaul of the Texas school system in 1949. In that year the Legislature abolished the statewide elected office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in a futile attempt to divorce politics from education, and created the TEA to oversee both public schools and teacher education. In theory the agency is charged with making sure the colleges produce teachers capable of transmitting knowledge in a classroom. In practice, the TEA is composed of career Educationists who shuttle between the college education departments, the school districts, and the TEA. In terms of being able, or even wanting, to do very much more about teacher competence than shuffle paper, the TEA might as well be in charge of regulating and keeping track of the genealogy of armadillos. Not only does the buck fail to stop here, it doesn’t even slow down.

A case in point: the TEA is supposed to set the guidelines for, and approve, every teacher-certification program at each of the state’s 63 teacher-training institutions. It uses on-campus visits, interviews, and institutional documents the colleges call “self-evaluations” in its deliberations. But the TEA has never rejected a program and never will.

In fairness to the TEA, its futility is not entirely self-imposed. Back in 1974 the agency was showing some faint stirrings of life before then attorney general John Hill handed down one of the more peculiar rulings to come out of his office. Hill decided that while Texas law clearly allowed the TEA to approve teacher-education and -certification programs, it did not let the TEA disapprove them. I leave the legal merits of Hill’s opinion to learned students of the bar; practically, it left the TEA shorn of power, albeit a power it had never chosen to use. The opinion notwithstanding, I have a hard time envisioning the TEA on a crusade against teacher-certifications programs. Dr. Tom Walker, director of the TEA’s Division of Teacher Education, told me frankly, “As long as you have decision-making in the political arena, political pressure can determine the decision.” Shutting down a college of education would draw the same reaction from the local legislator as shutting down an army base draws from the local congressman—except that the Pentagon packs more clout and once in a while gets its way.

In reality the TEA visitation is an elaborate charade in which the Educationists from the agency visit their soulmates in academia and almost invariably come away agreeing that the only thing wrong with teacher education on any given campus is that further specialization and grander architecture are in order. The TEA visited Southwest Texas State, for example, and presumably could have seen what I saw. It could not, however, have learned anything useful from reading the 1977 Institutional Report to the Texas Education Agency, a two-volume work containing 1037 loosely bound pages of self-praise. I cannot claim to have perused every word of this weighty document, but I have read a good deal more of it than might be believed, and if there is anything wrong at the School of Education that is perceived by the administration or faculty, it does not surface in the text. The TEA likewise sees, hears, and speaks no evil. On a previous visit to Southwest Texas, the TEA found that the School of Education needed not a spanking (or better, dismantling) but a new main building, a new art building, a new student center, a new industrial arts visual aids facility, a new driver-training range (San Marcos streets apparently being inadequate), a new gymnasium, and improvements to the university farm, along with several renovations to existing structures. Total cost: $10 million. No substantive fault was otherwise mentioned by either party to the evaluation.

If the TEA can do nothing to the colleges, you say, perhaps it can see to the competence of individual teachers? Perhaps it can. At this time, however, the TEA does not have that authority and the people in charge do not want it. All graduates are assured Texas certification by law so long as they have completed the specific education courses required. Those requirements are listed in detail in a publication of some 243 8½-by-11-inch pages called—and this will give you some idea—Texas Education Agency Bulletin 753, Guidelines for School Personnel: Certifications, Allocations, and Records, Section I—Certification, Change 2. Inside are the courses and degree plans required to earn certification in the many fields in which it is offered; as you can no doubt guess from its bulk, the matter is complicated to a degree one can only describe as insane. In general, the lower the grade level, the more education courses required. Nobody else on campus can pretend to offer the subjects taught in second grade; the Educationists have expanded into the vacuum. The same expansion has taken place in any area in which the traditional academic departments on campus have no turf to protect.

In order to teach seventh- and eighth-graders to type, for example, one needs to have had a college course in typing. To teach the same subject in the ninth through twelfth grades, one needs to have had that and 24 hours of “business education.” Imagine, if you will, what a college course in typing would consist of. Then try to determine how much shorthand and bookkeeping a person would learn in a full year of “business education.” Why shouldn’t a school district judge for itself whether a prospect types well enough to teach? Included in Bulletin 753 are copies of the forms sent out by the TEA to tell persons applying for “permanent provisional” certificates why they are deficient. A prospective teacher of vocational education may be lacking in any of 25 specific categories, plus “Other.” Besides the required courses in Texas and federal government, some of those specific areas are “Aims and Objectives of Vocational Education,” “Development, Organization, and Use of Instructional Materials,” “History and Principles of Vocational Education,” “Human Relations for Vocational Teachers,” “Methods of Teaching Vocational Subjects,” “Methods and Media for Teaching Vocational Subjects,” “Occupational and Educational Information,” “Group Procedures in Vocational Guidance,” and “Shop and Classroom Organization and Management.” Had enough? Then imagine yourself to be a practical-minded and idealistic youth interested in teaching high school shop.

Such tedious, detailed requirements have two fairly obvious intentions: keeping education professors in work and making sure nobody can take his or her training outside Texas, which amounts to the same thing. A more fiendishly efficient program for insuring mediocrity could not be designed.

What about testing for literacy on a statewide level, as Florida will do, starting next year? Mrs. Magnolia McCullough, who is in charge of the TEA Division of Teacher Certification, did not want me to think she was ducking the hard ones, but she passed me along to her boss, Dr. Jim Kidd, who is in charge of both education and certification. Dr. Kidd is very much aware of the problem of competency. Most of our discussion, though, was a waltz around what I came to call privately the chicken and the egg—the chicken being the what of teacher, the egg being the how. Like all Educationists, however, he prefers talking about eggs to talking about chickens. Current orthodoxy holds that no “paper and pencil test”—a phrase that pops up again and again in talking to Educationists—can determine whether a person will be a good teacher. Now, such a conclusion ought to be obvious. If one could determine a person’s ability to succeed in a pragmatic art by administering a written exam, Howard Cosell would wear a helmet instead of a toupee and play cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys.

But if Howard Cosell thought a touchdown was scored by letting the air out of the football, or that a field goal was worth fourteen points, I think one could safely say his usefulness to the Cowboys would be limited. Yet the Tea does not believe in examining applicants for teacher certification because, as Kidd says, “there has been no progress in testing that can establish any positive connection between success on a test and success as a teacher. . . . We could require a B grade average but I’m not sure that would be valid or even desirable.”

I did not have the University of Houston figures on hand when I spoke to Dr. Kidd, so I was not able to counter properly. After a few trips around the henhouse we did finally agree that there is probably a connection between sheer ignorance and the inability to teach, but when I left his office I did not get the impression that the TEA would be moving forward on teacher licensing exams anytime soon. The truth is that the education departments have long since carried the day, politically speaking, and that the TEA is not about to begin a pecking party it would surely lose. Despite the odd glimmer of hope here and there—the education school at UT-Austin will start examining the competence of students before they enter the major—the system is too far gone to reform itself. Change will have to come from the outside.

Between 1967 and 1972 the TEA required the National Teacher Examination of those who planned to certify, never as a condition of certification, but as a fairly valuable indicator to anybody thinking about hiring a given individual of whether he knew what he was supposed to have learned in college. Like the SAT, GRE (Graduate Record Exams), LSAT (Law School Admission Test), and several other tests of their kind, the National Teacher Examination (NTE) is made up, administered, and scored by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, New Jersey, a nonprofit organization that maintains regional offices in Austin. Some educators will tell you, although not for attribution, that the NTE was given up because blacks and Mexican Americans did so poorly on it. TEA officials deny that, insisting that the instrument was dropped solely because no positive correlation could ever be established between the NTE and classroom success.

As it happens, blacks and Mexican Americans as statistical groups do tend to score worse on the NTE, although as was the case with the DISD’s Wesman test, individual members from all groups place from the very highest to the lowest categories. It is a fact of life that blacks and Mexican Americans score lower on all standardized instruments as a result of historical discrimination. But historical discrimination is no reason to exempt contemporary students from basic educational requirements, which, after all, are not really very difficult if insisted upon. More and more blacks and Mexican Americans are rejecting the notion that basic standards constitute cultural bias. They realize that the contention can be a form of self-imposed racism as destructive as bigotry. To use the crutch of cultural bias is to load up the schools with incompetents who cannot teach, are fearful of speaking up for themselves and their students, and who validate white superstitions about minority incapacity. The only incapacity really being protected is the Educationists’. Entrance to other professions—medicine, law, architecture, accountancy—is achieved only after passing licensing exams. Why not teaching?

When other states tried licensing exams, the National Education Association’s response was predictable. It sued South Carolina for using the National Teacher Examination as one of a number of guidelines for approving or disapproving the certification of teachers. Fortunately, the NEA lost: the U.S. Supreme Court rules in January 1978 that the NTE creates classifications on permissible bases—knowledge, skill, and ability—and that they are not used with any intent to discriminate.

The attack on the Educationists’ monopoly over the public schools may have already begun. The recent session of the Texas Legislature restored the pre-John Hill authority to disapprove, as well as approve, college teacher-certification programs. The Legislature also partially heeded teachers’ pleas to give the profession, not the TEA, control over certification; a new advisory board dominated by teachers will in the future make recommendations on certification programs to the TEA’s publicly elected governing board, which still has the final say. Maybe teachers, who covet the status enjoyed by professions like law and medicine, will try to institute licensing tests. Maybe. Experience suggest, however, that they are more likely to seek even more protection than they already have. But Texas teacher organizations have not—as the Classroom Teachers of Dallas’ resistance of the NEA position on competency testing shows—grown as defensive as teacher unions elsewhere. Indeed one of the most articulate and forceful critics of the current setup I spoke to was Harley Hiscox, a full-time organizer for the Dallas Federation of Teachers and an AFL-CIO man all the way. “I taught for twenty years in California and had a life certificate,” Hiscox says, “and I couldn’t get a job anywhere in Texas. I’d have to go back to school for a year at least—full time. I would need the equivalent of another MA. My wife taught fifteen years in Canada and it is taking her a year to certify. The purpose is not to get better teachers, it’s to get more money, more contact hours, and bigger buildings for the colleges.”

The monopoly of the education schools must be broken; there must be other paths to certification. Since teaching is a pragmatic art best learned by experience, school districts should establish apprenticeship programs for people who can satisfy the literacy requirements and show a command of subject matter. This isn’t 1910, when Texas comprised thousands of tiny rural school districts that needed whatever guarantee of teacher quality the education schools could provide; this is modern, urban Texas, and the school districts are much more sensitive to demands for competence than Educationists who pick their way to class through fields of bikinis. The education schools will never improve substantially without competition. Opening up the profession would not only save money that now sustains the Educationists’ empires, but could also help bring into the public schools considerable numbers of persons who chose an education over certification to begin with. It might also go a long way toward restoring the dignity of what is, after all, one of the most decent of professions. Indeed, it is only because there are so many more talented and committed public-school teachers out there than one could possibly expect from the system that produces them—so many who have gritted their teeth and persevered—that one can propose apprenticeship programs over what we have now. Every high school teacher I know at all well, and I know quite a few, would be just as appalled at the goings-on in Education 3330 as I was.

Like all proposals for reform, mine might not work as I envision it. The TEA could subvert literacy standards by setting them so low as to be meaningless. Or salaries could remain so low that schools continue to be outbid for talented people and have to fill slots with whatever they can get.

But I am sure of one thing. We have to do something. I believe in public schools, having never attended any other kind at any level. My elder son attends a black-majority urban public school and his younger brother will join him in the fall. Unless I grow convinced that either or both is suffering irreparable brain atrophy, I intend to keep them there through high school. I do not wish that they consort only with children whose parents can afford private schools and whose skin is the same shade as theirs. I also believe that the very future of American democracy is at stake. An illiterate or semiliterate person in our society is a kind of peasant. Peasants may or may not be happier than tax lawyers, but they cannot make intelligent choices in the world we inhabit. Another generation of the same old thing, and even the most egalitarian advocates of the public schools in Texas will come to feel as just about everybody in New York City who can afford private tuition and many who cannot do: public schools were a nice idea for their time, but not for their children’s.

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  • http://www.vemmaexperience.com Luqman Michel

    The above in a old article. What is the current status? How do I get to write to Gene Lyon?

  • http://www.vemmaexperience.com Luqman Michel

    Is this ‘Monthly’ still under publication? I would like to know the current status of the standard of teachers in Texas.