On March 13, an article in a major Michigan newspaper reported that an instructor at Michigan State University (MSU) was offering extra credit to her teacher-candidate students for attending rallies protesting war with Iraq.
The instructor was sophisticated enough to recognize the realities of the situation and made clear that her offer was open to those who attended “pro-war” rallies as well, although a spokeswoman for the university told the newspaper that “she didn’t know of any.”
The article was curious in that, while its tone was one of praise, the very reporting of the matter as “news” assumes there might be something objectionable about such practices. Yet, the reporter quoted no one objecting to blatant politicizing of the curriculum at a respected university. It’s a problem that should especially concern us when it rears its head in the critical area of teacher preparation.
In 1996, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy published “Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities” by Dr. Thomas F. Bertonneau, then an English instructor for Central Michigan University, and a well-known critic of teacher training he said “emphasize[s] emotion and subjectivity over rigor.” The result of such training, he said, was that “Students in teacher education courses, who have not learned very much because of faulty instruction, take faulty instruction methods to their own teaching careers. They do not learn how to teach well.”
“A preference for trivia is also part of the problem in today’s teacher education courses,” Bertonneau pointed out. “The curricula offered by university education departments are heavy on fuzzy ‘self-awareness,’ ‘multicultural,’ and other faddish or politicized material, and light on the hard knowledge of the subjects that teachers must eventually teach.”
The MSU course in which teacher candidates could receive credit for taking an anti-Iraq war stance was Teacher Education 250, “Human Diversity, Power and Opportunity in Social Institutions.” This very course was singled out by Bertonneau in 1996 as an example of the kind of frivolous, and ultimately profitless, courses Michigan’s teacher candidates must endure as part of their preparation for the classroom.
“Using catch words from the theoretical discourse which one encounters frequently today in schools of education,” Bertonneau wrote, “TE 250 aims at a ‘comparative study of schools and other social institutions,’ and includes material on the ‘social construction maintenance of diversity and inequality,’ and ‘political and social consequences for individuals and groups.’”
What sorts of teachers — and students — does such instruction produce?
As early as January 1995, The Detroit News was reporting on its front page that “There is trouble at the head of Michigan's classrooms, and it may get worse before it improves.” The report revealed that one-third of prospective geography and health teachers flunked their certification tests and that those taking biology and history exams fared only slightly better. The article noted that “While nearly all [prospective teachers] passed a basic skills test in reading, writing and math,” the test is “so easy that it gives the public no assurance of any level of competency.”
Just months before publication of Bertonneau’s 1996 analysis, the News reported that “The deterioration of teacher training has been closely linked with the erosion of a solid core curriculum in the state universities of Michigan.” In the same report, the News concluded that “Many Michigan teachers are not qualified to teach the subjects that they are assigned.”
Bertonneau offered a host of recommendations for improving teacher education, such as requiring teacher candidates to take far fewer specialized courses in the education departments, and far more substantial courses in the subjects they will teach.
But rather than waiting for a broken system to reform itself, the Michigan Legislature should enable highly qualified individuals — who cannot or will not waste their time on profitless coursework — to bypass the schools of education on their way to becoming teachers. This could be done by recognizing alternative forms of certification, or by allowing schools and school districts themselves to decide whether an individual can meet their classroom needs.
Of the many reasons why we have a crisis in K-12 education, surely wasting the time of teacher candidates with frivolous, irrelevant or politicized curricula is one we can do something about.
(Samuel Walker is a communications specialist at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. More information is available at www.mackinac.org. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the authors and their affiliations are cited.)