Jonathan Zimmerman: How U.S. goes wrong in education

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author of"Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century," which will be released next month.]

More than two decades ago, I graduated from college and joined the Peace Corps. I was sent to Nepal, where I would do the only thing I knew how to do: teach.

In truth, though, I had no idea what I was doing. Neither did most members of my volunteer group. There were 15 of us, and exactly one had trained and worked as a teacher.

I thought of the Peace Corps as I read the latest report about teacher preparation in the United States, which was released last week by the Education Schools Project. The report is full of bad news that we've all heard many times before: low admission standards, Mickey-Mouse courses, and limited practice-teaching experience. And when we compare ourselves to other countries, we look even worse.

Consider two 17-year-olds, one in Germany and one in America, who both hope to become teachers one day. First the German must pass a series of rigorous examinations administered after high school. Then she can enter the university, where she'll study two disciplines in detail. She will have to pass an examination in both subjects, which can include up to three four-hour written tests and a one-hour oral one.

Then it's on to a two-year teacher-training program, combining rigorous seminars with classroom experience. Our future teacher will observe and teach in multiple schools over this span. She'll also be evaluated up to 25 times by a supervisor from the university.

At the end, she must pass a second exam. It requires her to teach a series of lessons on a given topic and to submit a report about them, which can run 100 pages. She'll also have to undergo another oral test, focused on methods of teaching in her two disciplines.

Compare that to your typical future teacher in the United States. No matter how poorly she fares in high school, she'll inevitably find a college that will take her. As the new Education Schools Project report confirms, admissions standards in most teacher-preparation programs remain distressingly low."We are not producing any Einsteins," one college official quipped. Others described their teacher-training programs as" cash cows" to generate tuition dollars.

Many of our so-called methods courses lack intellectual substance, as any education student could tell you. Nor do the students receive sufficient training in the field. More than three-quarters of education students practice-teach for a semester or less, even though most of them say that's not enough.

Thanks to new state and federal standards, the students now have to take more classes in the academic disciplines they plan to teach. That's exactly as it should be, of course, but many students report that their academic and methods classes remain largely unconnected. And once they graduate, they might not teach"their" subject at all. For example, just half of the math teachers in America actually majored in math.

So what's going on here? As a professor at an education school, I freely admit that institutions like my own bear a big part of the blame. But as a historian, I also know that the problem has much deeper roots. The American public - that means you - simply doesn't value teaching enough to improve it.

And the best way to see that is to study Americans who have gone abroad. Starting in the early 1900s, schools in Asia and Africa turned away missionaries who had taught in the United States - but lacked sufficient credentials to teach anywhere else."I myself am bored by all this advanced degree business," wrote one mission official in 1932,"but our workers are under educational systems which they cannot control, and sometimes they have to have these degrees."

In the 1960s, likewise, several new African nations rejected Peace Corps teachers for lack of qualifications. The African countries required teachers to possess either two years of experience or a state certificate; in most cases, Peace Corps volunteers had neither.

So when I got to a tiny Nepali village, in 1983, the local teachers were shocked to discover that they often had more training and experience than I did."You come from such a rich country," one teacher told me."Why is your education so poor?"

That's a huge question, for every single one of us. As a society, we possess the wealth and human capital to place a highly skilled, knowledgeable, and experienced teacher in every American classroom. We just don't have the will to do it. The fault, dear American, is not simply in our teacher-preparation programs. It's in ourselves.

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