Opinion and Economic Analysis

Hicks: Stamp out mediocrity in education colleges

August 3, 2013

Over the past two years, Indiana has replaced licensing and compensation rules for public schoolteachers that required degrees exclusively from teachers colleges.

The new rules require increased content instruction for novice teachers. New promotion and compensation rules focus on classroom performance, which eliminates guaranteed pay increases for receiving master’s and doctoral degrees.

This had the predictable result of inciting outrage by deans of teachers colleges. They knew this proposal would clobber enrollment in master’s and doctoral programs.

The changes were long overdue, as a recent study by the National Council on Teacher Quality suggests. The findings paint an especially critical picture of teacher preparation. I found it a carefully compiled, cleverly designed and well-executed examination of a serious public policy issue.

Quite predictably, the leaders of teachers colleges criticized the study. It provided support for Indiana policymakers, but it didn’t really tell those of us in higher education anything we didn’t already know.

The unvarnished truth in higher education circles is that education colleges are widely viewed as the first refuge of mediocrity. Every college professor can tell stories of a failing student who leaves their discipline to pursue a teaching career.

Worse still, the only meaningful research on education design and policy comes from other disciplines, primarily psychology and economics.

The path to a teaching career has long been a broken system that desperately needs courageous leadership to set things right. I’m thankful there is precedent.

The Spanish-American War delivered painful evidence that preparation of new army officers was insufficient. The curriculum of the service academies was mediocre, and prepared officers poorly for modern war.

The remedy was a program offering fundamentals of military training alongside a wide variety of academic programs in civilian colleges. Today, most military officers are trained not at West Point, or Annapolis, but in civilian universities.

The insularity of military training that failed us in 1898 is exactly like that of teachers colleges today. More reform is needed.

Teaching is hard work, and often thankless and modestly paid, much like the military. It requires an adaptive, innovative mind coupled with a love of learning and classroom management skills. Only one of these traits is best nurtured in the modern college of education.

In this century, more teachers will learn about child development in psychology departments and history from history departments. The diminished role of education colleges will discomfort a few of my colleagues in higher education. The rest of us—students, parents and teachers—will benefit from the change.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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