Most discussions of the problems of American education have an air of utter unreality because they avoid addressing the most fundamental and intractable problem of our public schools -- the low quality of our teachers. There is no point expecting teachers to teach things that they themselves do not know or understand.
That becomes painfully obvious from a recently released report from the U.S. Department of Education. This report has an innocuous title on the cover -- "Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge" -- and devastating facts inside.
According to this report, in 28 of the 29 states that use the same standardized test for teachers, it is not even necessary to come up to the national average in mathematics to become a teacher. In none of these states is it necessary to come up to the national average in reading. In some states, you can score in the bottom quarter in either math or reading (or both) and still meet the requirements to become a teacher.
This report is only the latest in a long series of studies of teachers, going back more than half a century, showing again and again the low standards for teaching. Those who go into teaching have consistently had test scores at or near the bottom among college students in a wide variety of fields.
Despite the title of this report, the issue is not highly qualified teachers. The problem is getting teachers who are even decently competent. It is a farce and a fraud when teachers' unions talk about a need for "certified" teachers, when certification has such low requirements and when uncertified teachers often have higher qualifications.
Secretary of Education Rod Paige put his finger on the crucial problem when he said that, in selecting teachers, states "maintain low standards and high barriers at the same time." You don't have to know much, but you do have to jump through all kinds of hoops, in order to become certified to teach in the public schools.
The biggest obstacle are the education courses which can take up years of your time and thousands of dollars of your money, but which have no demonstrated benefit on future teaching. Research shows that teachers' actual knowledge of the subject matter is what benefits students.
Emphasis on something that does not affect educational quality reflects the priorities of the teachers' union in restricting competition, not the requirements for educating children. It would be hard for anyone who has not looked into education courses to believe just how bad they are. I wouldn't believe it myself if I hadn't seen the data, the professors and the students.
People go to these institutions in order to get certified, not because they expect to find anything either interesting or useful. Education courses repel many intelligent people, who are just the sort of people needed in our schools. As Secretary of Education Rod Paige puts it, "schools of education fail to attract the best students." That is an understatement. They repel the best.
Although many states provide alternative routes to teacher certification, these alternative routes are usually made burdensome enough to protect existing schools of education from losing their students. Indeed, these alternative routes often include many hours of education courses. The net result is that only 6 percent of certified teachers received their certificate via alternative routes. Many such programs, according to the report, "are 'alternative routes' in name only, allowing states to boast of reform while maintaining artificial restrictions on the supply of new teachers."
These artificially created shortages are then used by teachers' unions to argue for higher pay. Secretary Paige does not buy the teachers' union argument that teacher shortages are due to inadequate pay. He points out that "compensation in most private schools is lower than in public schools."
Yet private schools are able to get better qualified people, partly because most private schools do not let education course requirements screen out intelligent people. Some private schools even refuse to hire people who have been through that drivel.
It is refreshing to see a Secretary of Education who says what is wrong in plain English, instead of being a mouthpiece for the status quo in general and the teachers' unions in particular.