Scrap the "Mickey Mouse" Education Major

(From Substitute Teaching in Alexandria, Virginia)by C.F. Navarro

When I was a college student in the 1960’s, school-of-education courses were notorious for their lack of academic rigor. Professors in other departments mocked them, and liberal arts students looking for easy credits took them as electives. "Mickey Mouse” was what everybody called those courses.

Though I never enrolled in an education course, years later, as a professor and supervisor of student teachers at three universities, I did sit in on several that my students were required to take, and I saw for myself that the disparaging things said about them were largely true. I recall, for instance, one three-credit course on how to ventilate a classroom, arrange bookshelves and operate an overhead projector. The widely held notion that public school teachers go into teaching because they are incapable of doing anything else, no doubt originated with former college students and professors in other fields who remember those "Mickey Mouse" courses. And from what I hear, not much has changed since.

Back in the 1960’s, and in the good old days before that, the level of instruction dispensed by school-of-education-trained teachers in the U.S. may have been good enough for the majority of students who upon graduation from high school could readily find steady and life-long employment in semiskilled trades. Many did not even need to graduate. A rudimentary knowledge of the three R’s, if that, was all then required. But times have changed. Teachers bound to the traditional school-of-education “Mickey Mouse” fare lack the intellectual range and depth to prepare students for today’s, high-tech job market. And the same goes for the principals, administrators, counselors, and the slew of specialists running our public schools

The problem is especially bad at the elementary level. Elementary school teachers have to take so many education courses--40 percent of their total undergraduate credit hours on average--that most come out of college no better educated in the core academic subjects than community college graduates. Less gracious critics claim that on the average the educational level of elementary school teachers is no higher than that of a middling high school sophomore. Most, to be sure put in long hours nights and weekends preparing classes and do a great job decorating their classrooms. But intellectually speaking, very few measure up.

Consider the trouble so many American high school students of normal intelligence are having learning math. On average, only 25 percent of Alexandria public school seniors score at a proficiency level on national tests, and that despite all-out effort by schools to teach them, not math, but how to take the test.

Our school officials attribute this mass failure to the fact that our schools nowadays serve a disproportionate number of disadvantaged students A lame excuse. The truly disadvantaged are exempt from taking the tests. It's the average student who are making those low scores. The root of the problem really lies in the fact that most of our elementary school teachers do not know their math well enough to give their students the foundation and encouragement they need to master the subject in the higher grades. With few exceptions all the ones I know openly confess that the reason they majored in education (as their low SAT and GRE math scores reflect) was they were never any good at math. They so fear and hate math that they subconsciously, or perhaps deliberately, project their bias onto their students by watering down the subject under the guise of making it “fun.” Predictably, by the time their students reach middle school a good many likewise fear and hate math.

And pretty much the same holds true for science, (only 18 percent of high school seniors in the U.S. score at proficiency level) and, though to lesser degree, for language arts and social studies as well. It’s a no-brainer that if elementary school teachers were better versed in the core academic subjects, many of the learning problems and educational deficiencies plaguing school students today would not exist.

Our Aexandria schools have tried to patch up the problem with "resource teachers," specialists to whom students are sent for instruction that their regular classroom teacher cannot provide them. Thought this is better than nothing, it's not good enough, for much of the kids’ school day is wasted day shuttling back and forth between classrooms. Most of those resources teachers, moreover, are not all that knowledgeable, having received but a superficial, cursory training in how to teach their subject, rather than taking legitimate college-level courses in the subject itself.

That as many as half of engineering and science students enrolled in American universities are foreign born and educated because our high school graduates lack the interest or cannot make the grade, is not only a national shame, but a major detriment to our economic competitiveness and, possibly, to our national security. Some of those students will remain in the U.S and become loyal citizens, but many others will return to their home country, taking their skills with them, and, in short order, developing their own universities, continue on its downward spiral vis à vis the rest of the world. But the fixing cannot be entrusted to those who created the mess in the first place and have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Our public education offering, not just here in Alexandria, but everywhere in America needs fixing, and soon. The so-called improvements served up every couple of years are but rehashing of failed policies and strategies harking back 60, 70 years under a different jargon.

Time has come to scrap the "Mickey Mouse" undergraduate education program and require the new generation of teachers to earn a bona fide B.A. or M.A. degree. The art of how-to-manage a classroom can best be learned on the job and through informal consultation with experienced colleagues. “Operation Phoenix” would be an apt name for the radical change needed.

No comments:

#bookmarks-footer{ display: none; }