The MercatorNet IdeaFest
In a globalised world, mediocre teaching is doomed

MercatorNet was launched one year ago, on May 27, 2005. To mark our first anniversary, we  inaugurated the annual MercatorNet IdeaFest, a collection of pot-stirring, counter-intuitive, mind-bending essays. This year we have asked several creative people to answer a single big question: “What big idea of 2006 will be extinct in 2036?” Here is a response from the Provost of The King’s College in New York City, Peter Wood.  


Question: What big idea of 2006 will be extinct in 2036?
Answer: Modern teacher training

By 2036, the forms of teacher preparation that currently prevail in Western nations will have sunk into oblivion. We will have discarded schools of education, the pedagogies they teach, and the certification apparatus that they serve. Such schools, pedagogies, and certifications have clung to life stubbornly for the better part of a century despite ample evidence of their unsuitability. Why predict that in the next 30 years they will finally follow the giant ground sloth into the La Brea tar pit of history?

In an era when jobs that require a high level of trained intelligence flow easily to India and other countries, Western countries are awakening to the awkward reality that we are not very good at basic schooling.

Mediocre teaching isn’t the only reason we aren’t very good at basic schooling. A distressingly large and growing percentage of children grow up semi-parentless; increasingly children are lost in the buzz of electronic distractions; and we preoccupy kids with group grievances at the expense of learning. Every few years our governments launch ambitious new programs of school reform, each of which seems to create a maelstrom of new kinds of educational misfeasance.

But after we have sifted and weighed all these contributory maladies, the main problem remains that we just don’t do a very good job at encouraging talented people to become teachers and equipping them along the way with the right kind of preparation. The single biggest cause of the deficiencies in our schools is the risible system by which we train teachers.

Informed critics have been inveighing against the faults of that system since the 1940s. The list of criticisms has barely changed in that time. Generally schools of education recruit weak students. The average SAT scores for would-be teachers for decades have scrapped along among the lowest of all enrolled college students. The schools of education then proceed to endow these well-meaning but dull folks with strangely mistaken ideas about how children learn. The wisdom on how to teach accumulated over several thousand years of civilisation is summarily set aside in favour of what some recent educational theorists have conjectured. The conjectures are typically backed by a form of social science “research” several notches less rigorous than the reader surveys in supermarket magazines.

And, of course, the students are diverted into studying “methodology” at the expense of learning much of substance about the actual subjects they will teach.

Of course, a few bright and idealistic souls, fearless of stultifying classes in educational theory, always have managed to slip past the guardians in school of education admissions offices. No matter. The educationists have further lines of defence, such as state curricular requirements and certification standards that ensure that even the exceptionally talented are forced to drink deep from the well of bogus theorising.

This system has been so successfully institutionalised in the U.S. and the Commonwealth countries that it might seem quixotic to predict its demise. After all, it is buttressed by politically-connected teachers’ unions, state laws, a massive regulatory apparatus, colleges and universities with a large financial stake in perpetuating it, and millions of mal-educated teachers who aren’t ready to reckon their lives ill-spent.

Nonetheless, it is doomed.

In 2036, we will still need teachers. Educating and civilising children will always require real adults who enter into sustained relationships with students. But the kind of teachers we will need will be people who know their subjects deeply and who can inspire a love of learning in young people. We simply won’t be able to sustain a system in which teaching is hack work for the untalented and the ideological.

The world market is already forcing Western companies to re-assess the situation. A high school diploma doesn’t mean much, although it might be a token of stolid determination in the face of grinding boredom. But most of the jobs in Western nations require quite a bit more than staying awake for an eight-hour shift. They require a mental agility that our schools just don’t foster and our ill-trained teachers can not even imagine.

What will happen? In the United States, more and more families are opting out of public schools for home schooling, private schools, and charter schools. Parents are ambitious for their children and don’t want to jeopardise their futures by giving them intellectually impoverished educations. Political pressure is growing to make the alternatives to public schools easier for all and more accessible to minorities in particular. The population base for public schools that provides the economic engine for schools of education is shifting. And at the same time, the essential product of public schools—the high school diploma—has been devalued by both employers and colleges. Not so long ago a home-schooled student was an anomaly who had a lot of explaining to do. Today, some colleges look at home-school students as preferred candidates, who are likely to be better prepared for higher education than their public school counterparts.

These are not passing trends. They point to what comes next: we will move to a system in which a degree in education will mark a potential teacher as under-educated and mis-trained. Instead teachers will be recruited from the ranks of the liberally educated and will learn, as good teachers have always learned, by devotion to the task itself. Teachers unions will resist this bitterly, but it is a losing fight, as is evident by the shift in a majority of states in the US over the last 20 years to a requirement that a teacher must have a master’s degree in order to be permanently certified. Hidden within this requirement is the quiet acknowledgment that the undergraduate teacher’s degree is, for practical purposes, useless. What makes anyone think a master’s degree from the same school with courses taught by the same faculty is any better?

Ultimately, the tax-paying publics in Western nations will overcome the political inertia of the unions and require public schools to hire truly talented teachers. When that happens, the schools of education will close. They will indeed try to reform themselves to avoid this fate, but I doubt very much that such efforts will prevail. The whole enterprise of such schools was misconceived from the start. People who aspire to become real teachers don’t need training in theory and methodology. They need to learn their subjects and kindle to the task of helping young people become owners of their own minds.

Though I speak here of the prospect of a particular institutional change—the obsolescence of schools of education -- I am really predicting a kind of cultural shift in the West to an ethic that turns away from what schools of education represent. They represent an attitude of easy-going accommodation to mediocrity. They represent mislaid ambition and a general indifference to intellectual striving. They are, in their way, an embodiment of an anti-thrift sensibility, in which time, and effort, and money don’t matter very much.

My prediction is that, faced with a world in which we see a real decline in our standard of living because other nations are racing ahead of us because of educational advantages, we are going to discover a profound distaste for the institutions that foster such mediocrity. Schools of education aren’t the only such institution but they are at the heart of the problem.

Peter Wood is Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at The King’s College in New York City


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  • Peter Wood