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.

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

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