Time To Pay Attention To How Our Teachers Are Taught

February 6, 2012

The problem with American education today isn't just how our teachers teach. It is how our teachers are taught. The criteria for passing some certification tests is ridiculously easy. And the alternative philosophies of certain teacher education textbooks have to make you wonder. The victims of these failures are our children, and grandchildren.

But one local retired educator, and former QCSD director, is "offended" by that notion. After reading yet another prominent expert's indictment of our educational system, Dr Robert Leight apparently felt the need to justify the fad education he championed for two decades.

Nationally-syndicated columnist Dr. Walter Williams, the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University, is a weekly contributor to the Op-Ed page of the Intel. Like all columnists, he has admirers and detractors.

Having been a college professor for more than 30 years, including department chairman and Faculty Member of the Year, and with a library full of teaching honors and more than 150 publications to his name, Williams is more qualified than most to evaluate the quality of today's teachers, and the educational philosophies that affect them. And, like many of his old-school brethren, he doesn't like what he sees. So, his January 25 column is of particular relevance in our neck of the woods, where prior school directors like Leight were in love with alternative education.

Williams blames the decline in America's education on the plethora of far-fetched educational philosophies used to train our teachers. It used to be that all prospective instructors learned that educating students meant teaching them the basics - reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, sentence structure, history, perhaps a foreign language. But Williams laments that many of today's educators are urged to be touchy-feely about everything, exploring every possible implication (what Williams calls "multicultural nonsense") rather than focusing on the nuts and bolts of the task.

Williams (who is Afro-American) explains that teachers today are "forced to learn about this ethnic group, that impoverished group, this sexually anomalous group, that under-represented group, etc. -- all under the rubric of 'Culturally Responsive Education'."

And while it may be unfair to disparage an entire profession based on the dubious quality of some textbooks used in their education, Williams cites several examples of texts that "advocate sheer nonsense". He quotes a passage in Enid Lee et al.'s "Beyond Heroes and Holidays", which reads: "We cannot afford to become so bogged down in grammar and spelling that we forget the whole story. ... The onslaught of antihuman practices that this nation and other nations are facing today: racism, and sexism, and the greed for money and human labor that disguises itself as 'globalization'."

Bogged down in grammar and spelling????? In other words, substance trumps form. If da reedur unnerstans the storree, it dont matter if the wurdz ain't spelt rite, or thu gramur is well. Then there is Marilyn Burns' text "About Teaching Mathematics", which offers "There is no place for requiring students to practice tedious calculations that are more efficiently and accurately done by using calculators." This little gem was the justification for now-discredited programs like Integrated Math. The notion that kids don't need to comprehend basic arithmetic is absurd.

And perhaps the best example of unsubstantiated "multicultural nonsense" is in Harvey Daniels and Marilyn Bizar's text "Methods that Matter". "The main use of standardized tests in America is to justify the distribution of certain goodies to certain people". And that is part of our teacher training!!!

Williams goes on to demonstrate that it is so easy to become a teacher now, because we have dumbed down the requirements. He cites examples of how questions asked in teacher certification tests are apparently simpler than those asked in tests given to sixth graders, or ninth graders, or 12 th graders. Example: Which of the following is equal to a quarter-million? a) 40,000, b) 250,000, c) 2,500,000, d) 1/4,000,000 or e) 4/1,000,000.

And after quoting some statistics from the Chicago Sun-Times showing that many prospective teachers failed certification tests a decade ago, he points out that they now simply whiz through. " Departments of education have solved the problem of teacher test failure. According to a New York Post story (11/14/11) titled 'City teacher tests turn into E-ZPass,' more than 99 percent of teachers pass". Well, with brain-puzzlers like the quarter-million-dollar question above, who is surprised?

Williams' dissatisfaction is echoing precisely the reasons why QCSD voters demanded major changes in our curriculum, and in our board. The proponents of fad education - Kathy Mosley, Nancy Tirjan, Linda Martin, Pat McCandless - are gone. New directors Mitch Anderson, Gary Landes, Joyce King, and Fern Strunk have joined with holdovers Paul Stepanoff and Zane Stauffer to work to reinstate the basics that our kids have been missing.

Knowledge is when you know something; you can reach into your brain's memory banks and call on it. Much knowledge is gained from rote memorization, lectures, book studies. The abilities to research something on the web, and use a calculator, are valuable skills. But they are methods of gaining knowledge, they don't take the place of knowledge. There is a difference between being stupid and being ignorant. Our young people are not stupid. They are ignorant, largely because they have not learned very much from the institutions that were supposed to impart knowledge.

And if we needed yet another reminder of why our children and grandchildren in QCSD haven't had that knowledge imparted to them, consider this rebuttal to Williams' column, which appeared in the online Intel two days later:

Retired education professor offended by column

Posted: Friday, January 27, 2012 12:15 am

"As a retired professor of education at Lehigh University, I found the Jan. 25 comments of Walter Williams about schools of education offensive. I note that Mr. Williams is a professor of economics. Given the state of the economy, it seems that members of his profession have little basis for criticism of professors in other disciplines. Robert L. Leight, Richland Township"

Leight is certainly entitled to his opinion, but you have to wonder why he would want to call attention to himself, given that QCSD is just now starting to dig out of the mess that he and his cohorts created with the disastrous alternative education programs. And then to somehow blame Williams, and other economics professors, for the state of the economy???? Very few academics would agree with the decisions made around the world that have created the current debacle. I haven't read about a single econ text that said Derivitives were good, or that banks were justified in using greedy lending practices, or that Greece's we-can-support-everybody policies were financially justified.

And Leight, despite his "pedigree", has made other ridiculous statements about education. Back in November, 2006, he was attempting to downplay the district's history of poor SAT's when he advised the community "Many colleges no longer require the submission of scores in the (SAT) test". But a study at that time, by the 10,000-member National Association for College Admission Counseling, ranked the importance of 15 different admissions criteria, and - surprise! - the winners were: get good grades, take meaningful courses, and do well on your SAT's. Even QCSD eventually lumbered onto the bandwagon, encouraging SAT participation. But Leight warned those who criticize QCSD to "get their facts straight"!

Of course, getting facts straight starts with good teaching.