What We Need Instead of Common Core

Despite the billions of dollars showered on our schools, American public education is poor to mediocre and likely to remain so. Only 7% of our grade 8 students reach the advanced level in mathematics (on TIMSS tests), suggesting why little advanced coursework in mathematics and science can be taught in our high schools. In contrast, between 27% to 49% of grade 8 students in the five highest-achieving countries (all in East Asia) reach the advanced level.

For several decades, the federal government and most states have thought they could best address increasingly inadequate and uneven levels of student achievement by setting standards, with implementation enforced by state or federal assessments. For reasons that made little sense—then or now—they thought that schools could be fixed by tackling student achievement directly.

Today’s education policy-makers have simply continued down the same wrong yellow-brick road and have added “school choice” to the menu of what they want from the Wizard but have a very limited understanding of what choice could include. Their major assumption seems to have been that most teachers don’t expect enough of all students (“the soft bigotry of low expectations”).

However, if they had examined public education in just a few other countries, they would have realized that the first potholes to fill in here were (1) the low if non-existent requirements for admission to our education schools and (2) a K-12 curriculum shaped almost entirely by the academically under-qualified teachers and administrators who come from our education schools and by the ideas of those who teach them in our education schools.

Education policy-makers might have looked at how our medical training improved so dramatically over the past century. After the Flexner report in 1910, the goal was to make sure that doctors had first-class medical training, no matter what medical schools they had graduated from. Each state revamped its medical training programs and established academic requirements for admission to them, plus a licensure test after medical school. Those who passed these tests could diagnose and treat medical problems better than those who couldn’t. Good bedside manners, as desirable as they are, were not the target of these tests. 

Yes, a medical education became expensive, health care became more expensive, and there were fewer doctors in rural areas. But the average doctor was much more competent, sound medical research flourished, and the average life span of our citizens increased dramatically over the next 100 years.

Contrast that with the U.S. Department of Education (USED) and its narrow circle of Gates Foundation-funded or Gates Foundation-employed advisers. They have spent their initial energies on first getting states to adopt the kind of standards they think low-achieving students can meet to be declared “college-ready” (i.e., generic, content-light skills in the English language arts); and then, on arguing with teacher unions about the percentage of students’ test scores for which teachers and administrators should be held accountable. The USED has seemingly sacrificed all of our students on the altar of a single and limited source of educational accountability—student assessment.

All education school programs need to be restructured and revamped. Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, sought to spark national discussion on ways to reform a dysfunctional institution with a series of reports in the mid-2000s on preparing school leaders, teachers, and education researchers. His ideas went nowhere.

The 2008 final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel found that teachers who completed a traditional teacher preparation program have no higher student performance on average than do other teachers.

Student achievement is not related to whether prospective teachers graduate from a traditional teacher education program or an alternative program. Nor could the Panel find a body of evidence to support the efficacy of professional development in raising student achievement, whether or not it had increased teachers’ knowledge of their subject.

The Panel did find a body of credible research on one characteristic of an effective teacher: knowledge of the subject they teach. It was significantly related to student achievement. The more academically competent the teacher is, the more students learn.

What Can States Do?

1. A state can raise the bar for admission into a teacher preparation program. In such high-achieving countries as Singapore, South Korea, and Finland, admission to a teacher-training program is highly competitive. Only students in the top 10-20% of their high school or college cohort are admitted to an elementary or secondary training program. In contrast, most elementary teachers in the U.S. come from the bottom third of their college cohort, as noted in a 2007 McKinsey report.

2. A state can require a Master of Arts or Science degree in a subject taught in K-12 before admission to any program for school administrators. This requirement would upgrade the caliber of many school administrators in one stroke and would have positive consequences for development or revision of the school curriculum. The MA or MS degree could not be created for, or targeted to, school administrators only.

3. A state can require a Master of Arts or Science degree in a subject taught in K-12 before admission to a doctoral program in curriculum and instruction. This requirement would also upgrade the caliber of doctoral students in one stroke. It is mind-boggling to think that over 15,000 of the 16,000 studies located for possible review by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel had to be discarded because they failed to meet minimum scientific standards in their design and claims. It is not just research in mathematics education that is weak in design or execution. The bulk of education research in other areas (e.g., written composition) also cannot be used to tease out “best practices.”

4. A state can require applicants to doctoral programs in educational leadership or public policy to demonstrate their ability to locate and analyze a body of research evidence supporting a current major policy. They need to show they are able to distinguish between well-designed studies that permit generalization and poorly designed research or anecdotes.

5. A state can train prospective secondary teachers under the aegis of the academic discipline they major in, with pedagogical faculty attached to the discipline, not an education school. This is a common European model.

6. A state can train prospective pre-school, kindergarten, and primary grade teachers in two- or three-year pedagogical institutes, as do many European countries. Prospective pre-school and kindergarten teachers should not be required to complete a liberal arts major in a four-year college in order to teach pre-school or kindergarten.

We have heard a great deal in recent years about the Finnish model. All prospective teachers in Finland can be trained at only eight universities in the country and must have graduated from an academic high school.

Prospective elementary teachers are admitted to a five-year program in Educational Science consisting of a three-year B.A. degree program followed by a two-year master’s program in education. Prospective subject teachers usually complete a three-year B.A. degree program and two-year master’s program in their subject in the arts and sciences, followed by a two-year master’s program in education.

The 1970 reforms upgraded the master’s program in education for both types of teachers, focusing them on educational research. Subject teachers are also supervised by faculty with appointments both in the arts and sciences and in pedagogy. Subject teachers are expected to have a deep understanding of their subject before they begin their teaching career, and in their pedagogical training they are not separated from discipline-based faculty.

7. A state can require discipline-based faculty as well as pedagogical faculty to supervise student teachers. In order to implement needed changes in K-12, this is perhaps the most important area to address. The length of student teaching time is something that would be negotiated with the re-accrediting body for education schools. But the availability of discipline-based faculty (and the time they spend) is probably a responsibility of a Board of Higher Education, a Board of Trustees, the arts and sciences dean, and the education school dean.

Suggestions here are based on a credible body of research evidence showing a relationship between academically stronger teachers and higher student achievement. An academically stronger corps of educators is more likely to establish and teach an academically stronger curriculum, do better designed research, and make more soundly based educational policy. Yet, our educational leadership is in a state of denial.

Our educational leadership seems incapable of taking the obvious step that other countries have taken as a matter of common sense—restricting admission to a teacher preparation program to the top 10-15% of the cohort graduating from a regular high school (for admission to an undergraduate education program) or to the top 10-15% of those graduating from college (for admission to a post-baccalaureate education program). True reform demands it.

Sandra Stotsky, Ed.D. is Professor Emerita at University of Arkansas.


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