Life among the Bottom Feeders?
(Well, okay, in one measure, agriculture majors were lower than ed majors. The farmers did better than the ed majors in every other measure.)
Neither Bobby nor I was surprised. We are both teachers; also, neither of us has ever been an education major, unless you want to count the "Master's certificate" that I completed in order to be certified as a secondary English teacher. However, we have taken a lot of education coursework in the process of being certified. Majors become rather complicated when one starts talking about education because one can become a teacher without majoring in education. For wannabe secondary teachers, majoring in education may not even be an option. At my undergrad alma mater (UMBC), "education" wasn't available as a major if you wanted to teach secondary; you had to major in your content area and then do a separate certification. So the stats for undergrad are very likely missing most or all of secondary ed teachers. Many U.S. states, however, require or strongly encourage teachers to earn Master's degree. Most of those degrees are in education, so the stats for grad students are probably capturing most of the teachers (with the exception of those like Bobby and me, who decide to go the rocky route of a Master's in our content areas).
Here are some anecdotal experiences that perhaps illustrate why Bobby and I weren't surprised by this data. Bobby went to a district-wide meeting once, and the person running the meeting asked how many people had MEd degrees. Most of the room raised their hands. And then how many people had Master's degrees in their content area. Bobby was the only one. This is backed up by research too, with 90% of teachers who hold Master's degrees having that degree in education.
When I was student teaching, it was a not-so-secret belief among my colleagues that completing an MEd degree was the fastest way to access the higher pay grades open to teachers with advanced degrees because the coursework was so easy. My own experience taking graduate-level coursework in order to earn my certification confirms this. It was easy, much easier than my undergrad coursework (in psychology) was. I've told the horror stories before; I won't repeat them again now but will simply conclude that, aside from developing a nice collection of reference books related to education and aside from the wonderful mentor I worked with for two years (who wasn't affiliated with the university, I might add, but Carroll County Public Schools), I was really just paying to have the right credits added to my transcript in order to earn my certification.
This is, incidentally, why I decided not to do my Master's in education. I remember completing my certification and looking at the MEd program at my university. My thought was that if my certification courses took me partway to my MEd, I might as well finish. My big goal, at the time, was to do an MEd in special-ed and an MA in humanities. None of my certification coursework counted toward the MEd, and after two years in the education grad-school ghetto, I felt sick at the thought of more education courses. Yes, I made the choice to do four more years of school in a challenging discipline rather than coast through more inane education coursework. I would still love to do a real research-based and rigorous graduate program in special-ed. But I despair of ever finding one.
So this gets back to the original article and what it means that education majors are consistently from the bottom of the barrel. I think it has two implications: 1) it speaks to the attractiveness of education as a profession (where really smart people want to go on to become teachers) and 2) it speaks to the state of "education in education," which I'd assert is a joke.
As to the attractiveness of the job: I think this is pretty obvious in the U.S. There has been a lot of discussion about teacher pay, and this is a serious issue in some districts (where a new elementary school teacher, for instance, may make only a borderline living wage). It's not so much an issue in Maryland, thank goodness. I think the issue is really with working conditions and respect for the profession. In terms of working conditions, classes are overcrowded, teachers are stretched thin among competing obligations, they face a high risk of being assaulted or injured in some schools (many in Baltimore) and are almost certain to be verbally abused by students or parents, and they are very often not provided with the resources needed to do their jobs. And then (and this gets to respect for the profession) they get blamed when kids fail. Teachers have become the scapegoats for many social ills. If a student is failing, why look at the fact that there is no or permissive parenting, no value placed on education by the student's role models, perhaps crippling poverty or community violence ... certainly those things have nothing to do with a student's inability to pass a state-mandated test, right? It all actually comes down to the couple of hours per week that you, the teacher, see that child. Who wants to go through the years of education and training to work in an unpleasant environment and be blamed and undermined for your efforts?
Slate had an interesting article last year in which a Finnish education student (Finland has the best education system in the world) compared her experiences as an ed student in Finland the U.S., especially the response she received from people she told about her major. In Finland, only 10% of applicants to education schools are accepted. In the U.S.? Saying "I'm an education major" is slightly more respectable than saying "I'm a mushroom," but not much. The popular phrase "if you can't do, teach" that is bandied about generally in the U.S.--can't blame just the conservatives here (although they particularly seem to love it) since I was told this by a liberal fandom friend upon receiving my teaching certification and after actually making my living for a year "doing," i.e. writing for a living--says so much.
So, in short, really smart people in the U.S. don't want to become teachers. Why would they? To make a mediocre salary for the honor of possibly being punched out by a student, cussed out by a parent, and blamed for the social ills that politicians find too thorny to deal with? Typing this, I'm beginning to doubt my own intelligence for choosing this as a profession. (Although everyone here knows how strongly I do believe in it.)
Which comes to my second point: the dismal state of education in education. And it is dismal. My theory is that, especially as districts have sought to encourage teachers to get advanced degrees and especially as online and other nontraditional options have expanded, colleges and universities would be fools not to offer an education program. In my experience, the courses are usually taught by teachers (itself a problem since teaching makes up for all the months of vacation by really piling on during the school year) and most of the students are usually teachers too ... again a problem, since I speak from experience when I say that juggling a teaching career and graduate school is difficult. People who know me well know that I literally made myself sick last year in trying to do both. And I don't have kids; if I did? My life for the last year would be impossible. So the nature of the professors and students in these programs makes them lean toward being easy. Also, which program wants to be the one that has the reputation of being rigorous enough to fail out teachers already practicing, perhaps at the cost of their certifications? Who wants to have the program that gives out B's and C's where other programs award A's just for showing up, putting one's own graduates as a disadvantage?
This creates an ugly feedback loop. Education coursework is easy; everyone knows that. So who is going to respect someone with an advanced degree in education? The lack of respect for educators contributes to the constellation of problems plaguing teaching as a profession (as well as being a problem in its own right) and makes the profession less attractive to the most qualified candidates, who can usually go elsewhere and do easier work for more money and prestige. So now you really do have a higher-than-usual number of less-qualified candidates entering the profession and, thus, education programs. The bar has to be lowered because no program wants to become known as the program that flunks out teachers who are doing perfectly well in the profession otherwise; such would be financial suicide. And so everyone knows that education coursework is easy.
My thoughts aren't popular in the education establishment on how to fix this. There, the prevailing mentality is that pedagogy can be taught and that people who aren't taught pedagogy can't teach. (This is why many teachers hate Teach for America. Every successful TFA teacher undermines the establishment to which they have paid long and costly dues.) To an extent, I understand and agree with this: Education, like any subject, can be subject to research and have best practices established. I just question whether education programs actually advance these objectives. Education is the only human services/social science discipline I'm familiar with where the graduate level doesn't require a research methodology course (I even had to take one as a humanities student before being allowed to register for further coursework); indeed, the week-long course I took in Content Literacy II last summer was the first education course I had where we even read scholarly articles (we read two). As an undergrad in psychology, I had to have several research courses, and the rigor was high enough in these that they were well known as the courses that caused many students to drop the major. But in education, instruction centers instead on learning faddish techniques that often seem ripped straight from the ether for all the empirical support they seem to have. In my training as an educator, I was given a particular skill set but never taught to find and interpret research in my field. So, as the scholarship on pedagogy evolves, I am left with no way to keep up. (Aside from taking more education courses, i.e., continuing to feed the beast.)
I actually feel like a lot of what makes a good teacher good can't be taught. And what can be taught must be learned in the field, i.e., under an excellent mentor, which I was lucky to have. Watching cute little videos on classroom management for a course didn't help me. Being in a classroom with my mentor and seeing how she handled various situations and having her explain to me later why she did what she did and being permitted to slowly do more and more in her classroom ... that was useful. It's like any other profession that deals with human beings in all of their complexity. You will hear doctors, for example, say that having exceptional knowledge of medicine doesn't alone make one a great doctor. Same with teaching: knowing all the cute names for the methods du juor and the current eduspeak doesn't alone qualify a person for trying to teach an unfamiliar concept to thirty immature human beings, each of whom brings something unique (for better or worse!) to the classroom. There is an art to it, and like all arts, it is not something that can be distilled down into a set of instructions.
Like I said, this is not a popular view. But I think that there is a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance at work here: After spending so many years, so many hours in dull and often infantilizing education classes, it is tempting to become a crusader for MORE PEDAGOGICAL TRAINING!!!1!! I've found it happening myself. No one wants to believe that they've spent the time and money they have on coursework that really doesn't benefit their students. But that's what the research increasingly shows--a Master's in education doesn't improve a teacher's effectiveness--and what I feel as well.
So what would I do? I'd insist on more rigor in one's content area and in understanding education as a science. With the increased academic rigor that has come with the Common Core standards, teachers should be exceptional in their content areas. There should be no more scraping the bottom of the barrel, no more acceptance of "can't do so teach." (Yes, this means improving working conditions, pay, and respect for teachers to make it an attractive profession to those bright enough to have other opportunities.) There should be preference given to teachers who have actually done real work in their content areas. If you can do, you should be teaching: This is a far more productive philosophy. Education coursework should focus on how to interpret and do research in education and should carry the same rigor as any social science. Most "pedagogical training" could probably occur in workshops that happen alongside internships so that students learn new techniques and put them to immediate work in the classroom. The emphasis should shift to internships and working with a mentor rather than long coursework. No more three years of coursework and three months of student teaching; rather, new teachers should be guided over the course of years, beginning as student teachers, perhaps co-teaching with a mentor or experienced teacher, and working solo under the guidance of a mentor.
Maybe then we'd stand a chance of dragging ourselves up alongside, if not the physicists, then at least the farmers.
This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!