Three years ago, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels directed his education advisers to "disqualify the propaganda" from courses used for licensing teachers in Indiana. But his concern wasn't focused only on a controversial history book by Howard Zinn that Daniels mentioned to the officials, and which has thrust him into an uncomfortable discussion about academic freedom in his new job as Purdue University's president.
Daniels' directive, contained in emails obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request, was part of a broader conservative push to move all of the training of school teachers out of the nation's teaching colleges.
At the core of the effort are two beliefs: that traditional teacher training produces bad teachers and that schools have been churning out political liberals and undercutting conservative beliefs, in part by using books like Zinn's "A People's History of the United States," which emphasizes violence against Native Americans and on class inequality.
"If one goes looking for a part of the university where … you're most likely to find teachers who throw caution to the wind and propagandize their students in favor of some ideological point of view, the school of education is at the top of the list," said Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, a group representing conservative university professors.
Most classroom teachers in the United States are products of education schools, graduating with a major in education and minor in subject areas. The programs teach education methodology and prepare students to meet the requirements for a state license.
Daniels and other conservative Republicans maintain that teachers would be better if they majored in the subject they would teach. He wanted to create alternative avenues for people in other fields to get teaching licenses.
The arguments, bolstered by a June report from the conservative-affiliated National Council on Teacher Quality condemning the nation's education colleges, are fueling pushes in a number of states for sweeping changes in teacher qualifications.
But education professors say the efforts miss the point of teacher training. Rob Helfenbein, an Indiana University professor who includes Zinn's book in a social studies methodology course for prospective teachers, said he doesn't think Daniels and others understand how colleges of education expose teachers to different views and give them the skills to succeed in the classroom.
"I think there are a lot more conservatives than people would ever imagine" in the education schools, Helfenbein said. "This is an old, tired argument the right has often said, that universities are this bastion of leftist thought. In my experience, I don't see it."
In Indiana, Daniels' concerns merged with a longstanding debate about the quality of education. Only about a fourth of the state's adults have college degrees, and efforts to boost performance among K-12 students have sparked sweeping changes including a new teacher evaluation system and a system that ties teacher merit pay to test scores.
Daniels' effort to require teachers to major in a subject area failed after members of the state's teacher licensing board raised concerns about the scope of the changes and the minimal time they had to review them.
Following that measure's failure, Daniels suggested the licensing board be called in for a "thank-you and a spine-stiffening session," according to a July 29, 2009, email he sent to his education advisers.
The state then tried to limit the number of social sciences courses, including those using Zinn's text, that would count for credit toward teacher licensing. It also opened the door to more students who earned degrees in areas like math and science to obtain licenses. That effort failed as well, but the rules have been resubmitted by Democratic schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz for public comment and are expected to come before the state school board again this fall.
A similar effort succeeded in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker last summer said he expected more teachers to flock to science and math because of new rules allowing students who graduated with a major in a subject area to obtain teaching licenses.
Daniels did not return an Associated Press request seeking comment Thursday. A spokeswoman said Wednesday he would not discuss his efforts to change teacher training. The publication of the emails revived criticism of Daniels' appointment as Purdue's president, but the university's board of trustees has reaffirmed its support of him.
Daniels has said previously that he wanted to ensure that teachers are well-versed in subject areas, and not bogged down in education techniques.
"We cut from 36 to 16 hours what I'll call the methods courses. It's on the quaint theory if you can teach math, you ought to know some math," Daniels said during a December 2011 panel held in Washington by the Republican Governors Association. "… Education schools, as we know them, are not — let me just be gentle and say it's not contributing to the solution."
Critics within Indiana's university system said Daniels and his aides made a concerted effort to drive students away from the colleges of education.
Gerardo Gonzalez, dean of Indiana University School of Education, said the effort "was clearly an unprecedented attempt by government to interfere with the university curriculum."