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Education Colleges Academic Slums

That grade inflation is rampant on campus and that schools of education are among the biggest offenders is old news. But the extent of the skew may surprise you.

Mark J. Perry, professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan-Flint, provides this stunning graphic of the grade distribution at Cornell:

The graphic above shows median grades for course in three departments at Cornell: Economics, Education and Math.  Specifically, it shows the percentage of course in each department with a median grade of A: Economics (13.6%), Education (77.8%) and Math (12.9%).  Note also that 100% of Education courses have a median grade of either A (77.8%) or A- (22.2%), whereas for Economics there’s a wider distribution of median grades: A (13.6%), A- (18.2%), B+ (50%) and B- (18.2%).  For math the breakdown is: A+ (3.2%), A (12.9%), A- (16.1%), B+ (41.9%), B (22.6%) and B- (3.2%).

He points to a recent column by Walter E. Williams reminding us that, “Schools of education, either graduate or undergraduate, represent the academic slums of most any university.”

American education will never be improved until we address one of the problems seen as too delicate to discuss. That problem is the overall quality of people teaching our children. Students who have chosen education as their major have the lowest SAT scores of any other major. Students who have graduated with an education degree earn lower scores than any other major on graduate school admissions tests such as the GRE, MCAT, or LSAT. Schools of education, either graduate or undergraduate, represent the academic slums of most any university.

As such, they are home to the least able students and professors with the lowest academic respect. Were we serious about efforts to improve public education, one of the first things we would do is to do away with schools of education.

I wouldn’t go that far, in that special training is required for those who are going to teach elementary school, special education, and the like. Any college graduate, after all, ought to have the basic knowledge required to teach 3rd grade! Subject matter mastery and high IQ don’t translate automatically into an ability to teach; indeed, they can hinder it because slow learners can be frustrating for those to whom it comes easily. But I can’t come up with a reason why junior high, much less high school, teachers ought to specialize in education rather than an academic subject. Some training in pedagogy might still be useful–the lack of it is a flaw in our preparation of college professors–but it shouldn’t be paramount.

Additionally, we must avoid the ecological fallacy here. Just because education majors on aggregate have some of the lowest standardized test scores and yet the highest grades on campus, it doesn’t mean that all education majors are sub-par or that none of them actually deserved an A in their courses. Given the relatively low pay and prestige the comes with teaching at the primary and secondary level, it’s actually remarkable how many bright, talented people go into the field. Unfortunately, these are the very people most likely to drop out of teaching, discouraged by the poor quality of their peers and the chafing constraints of the educational bureaucracy in which they must operate.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Tano says:

    Studying the question of how learning happens is one thing. Training to be an excellent teacher in the real world is another. Most education schools are filled with people who pursue the former, whereas most of us expect the schools to be performing the latter.

    Its the difference between an academic discipline, and a trade school.

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  2. Neil Hudelson says:

    But I can’t come up with a reason why junior high, much less high school, teachers ought to specialize in education rather than an academic subject. Some training in pedagogy might still be useful–the lack of it is a flaw in our preparation of college professors–but it shouldn’t be paramount.

    I was under the notion that they don’t specialize in education rather than an academic subject. I received my education degree as an afterthought to my two primary fields of study. At Purdue at least, to be certified to teach high school or junior high, one had to have a degree in the primary subject first. Education was treated, essentially, as a minor.

    Expanding on your quote, the education classes I did have to take that were designed wholly for secondary education majors were almost entirely designed to give us a better-than-basic knowledge of pedagogy, some hands on experience in classroom management (also important), and some prep classes on how to deal with delicate situations (such as inappropriate sexual advances by a student).

    On the other hand, the shared elementary-secondary classes I had to take were entirely useless and I was embarrassed to have to spend tuition and class time on them.

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  3. Ben Wolf says:

    Given the relatively low pay and prestige the comes with teaching at the primary and secondary level, it’s actually remarkable how many bright, talented people go into the field. Unfortunately, these are the very people most likely to drop out of teaching, discouraged by the poor quality of their peers and the chafing constraints of the educational bureaucracy in which they must operate.

    These people typically last less than five years in teaching before resigning or being thrown out. The truth is the field of education is extraordinarily conservative, in that it is extremely resistant to change and demands conformity over unorthodox and creative thinking. The final straw for me was the day my principal gave me a verbal whipping when he found me using a formula derived from autism research to try and objectively rate a student’s level of disability (the student was not doing well via conventional practices, and I had repeatedly questioned the low level of intervention the child was receiving).

    Apparently I was wasting valuable time that should have been devoted to lesson plans, and my thinking was too “abstract” to be of value to students. I also encountered a great deal of animosity from my co-workers when experimenting with different approaches.

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  4. steve says:

    In most OECD countries, teachers are better paid, when you normalize for GDP differences. I know it is a more prestigious job in some countries, but I dont know if that is the norm. I do know that when Asian and European kids come to the US, they perform just as well or better after going through our schools. I think this means that most of our educational problems are at the family level, not with the schools. I am all in favor of improving the quality of our teachers, but if we have limited funds to spend, let’s use them judiciously.

    Steve

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  5. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    The larger issue here, at least in the context of public sector colleges and universities, is the extent to which taxpayer money is being pissed away on riff raff who in turn are funneled into taxpayer-funded jobs “teaching” the children of taxpayers, many of whom become so dumbed down with the ensuing poor educations and left-wing propaganda that for all practical purposes their future earning capacity is void ab initio.

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  6. Boyd says:

    I’m struggling with this with my youngest daughter. She’s a sophomore at UVA with the ambition of becoming an elementary school teacher. She’s extremely gifted academically, having graduated sixth in her high school class of ~400, so she would do well studying just about any subject, certainly if it’s in an area that interests her.

    Her mother did not and does not want her to become a teacher because she doesn’t think it pays enough. Being retired from the Navy, I believe there are more important things than what you get paid, and teachers don’t generally have a problem with earning a decent wage. I’m just hoping that the satisfaction of working with the little kids will be enough to overcome the frustration she is bound to encounter.

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  7. JKB says:

    Oh, you are not up on the latest in education theory. The theory is that a graduate with an education degree can teach any subject even at the undergraduate level. That their purpose is not to instruct but help the students in their individual learning. I have this from an acquaintance who is a professor of Physics at a liberal arts university. Neither of us could understand what passes for scholarship in the education schools but I suppose it would be amusing to take, say, thermodynamics, from a “professor” who couldn’t do the math. I wonder if they could teach Political Science if they hadn’t done the reading?

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  8. mantis says:

    The theory is that a graduate with an education degree can teach any subject even at the undergraduate level.

    Name one university where people with education degrees teach undergraduate courses in “any subject” other than education.

    Neither of us could understand what passes for scholarship in the education schools but I suppose it would be amusing to take, say, thermodynamics, from a “professor” who couldn’t do the math.

    Name one university where “professors” without physics degrees teach thermodynamics.

    I wonder if they could teach Political Science if they hadn’t done the reading?

    Oh, we’re back to your assertion that political science faculty who don’t read Alinsky every night because Glenn Beck told them to are hacks. Get some new material.

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  9. mantis says:

    Unfortunately, these are the very people most likely to drop out of teaching, discouraged by the poor quality of their peers and the chafing constraints of the educational bureaucracy in which they must operate.

    James, do you have any evidence of this, or are you just assuming that is the case?

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  10. Neil Hudelson says:

    Oh, you are not up on the latest in education theory. The theory is that a graduate with an education degree can teach any subject even at the undergraduate level. That their purpose is not to instruct but help the students in their individual learning.

    As stated by someone above who, you know, actually has a degree in education (among others), and has taught in schools, this is not the case. But hey, keep on fabricating your own special reality. I’m sure its less frightening there than in the real world.

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  11. James Joyner says:

    @mantis: Mostly anecdotal but I’ve seen various studies that say the same thing.

    Pete Reilly:

    On average, a third of the newly hired teachers leave during their first three years; almost half leave during the first five years (National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future [NCTAF], 2003).

    […]

    Teachers who left the profession rated only two aspects of the teaching profession higher than their present non-teaching position:

    1) Benefits 2) Job Security.

    The biggest differences cited?

    1) Autonomy or control over workload – (65.2% vs 13.7%)

    2) Manageability of workload – (60.4% vs 13.5%)

    3) General work conditions – (50.9% vs 4.3%)

    4) Intellectual challenge – (51.8% vs 17.4%)

    5) Opportunities for professional advancement – (53.9%vs 18.1%)

    This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bad news….

    Check out these disparities:

    1) Professional prestige – (57.7% vs 15.8%)

    2) Recognition and support from administrators – (46.8% vs 19.7%)

    3) Opportunities for Professional Development – (41.7% vs 19.0%)

    It’s reasonable to extrapolate that the ones who value autonomy, intellectual challenge, and the like the most are the ones who are the smartest and most marketable.

    And, anecdotal(ish) but likely:

    “It’s not just the number of teachers leaving, but the quality of teachers,” said Don McMahon, a 40-year veteran teacher from Mesa, Ariz., who has done extensive study in the area of teacher dropout rates. “Everyone knows we have a dropout problem among high school students, but most people don’t realize that the dropout rate for teachers is even higher. It is often the best qualified teachers who leave first because they have the easiest time finding employment in other fields.”

    Teaching offers decent pay, outstanding job security, and great benefits but very little autonomy, variability, and academic/intellectual challenge compared to other jobs requiring similar credentialing.

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  12. mantis says:

    It’s reasonable to extrapolate that the ones who value autonomy, intellectual challenge, and the like the most are the ones who are the smartest and most marketable.

    Possibly, but are those the best teachers? I don’t know that they are or not. Seems to me that someone who values autonomy and intellectual challenge above all else may not be ideally suited to teaching the same subject year after year (for high school teachers), or a bunch of basic lessons in a variety of subjects (for earlier primary ed teachers).

    It is often the best qualified teachers who leave first because they have the easiest time finding employment in other fields.”

    This makes some amount of sense. One does wonder though, if the best qualified teachers leave first, does that mean the less qualified teachers would like to leave, but can’t find another job, or that they are happy where they are?

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  13. mattb says:

    Name one university where people with education degrees teach undergraduate courses in “any subject” other than education.

    JKB is perhaps stretching things a bit, but this isn’t as far from the truth as I wish it was.

    What I would say is that this type of attitude, where it exists, is far more prevalent among non-teaching administrators than it is among faculty members (thanks again “Higher Ed Administration” degree programs).

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  14. Ben Wolf says:

    It’s reasonable to extrapolate that the ones who value autonomy, intellectual challenge, and the like the most are the ones who are the smartest and most marketable.

    Possibly, but are those the best teachers? I don’t know that they are or not. Seems to me that someone who values autonomy and intellectual challenge above all else may not be ideally suited to teaching the same subject year after year (for high school teachers), or a bunch of basic lessons in a variety of subjects (for earlier primary ed teachers).

    It depends. Or at least I once thought so. Working with autistic children I had it in my head I should become as much an expert on autism as possible, and people seemed oddly surprised I had copies of medical and psychology journals in my room. And I did enjoy the intellectual aspect of the challenge; every day has its own little crisis and requires one to be highly adaptable if the goal is to deliver the best education possible.

    Is that asking or expecting too much? I’m not sure, but the problems I’ve outlined are most certainly not the result of “liberals” or the “left-wing”. Believe me, I got into a hell of a lot of trouble when I refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or require students to do so.

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  15. James Joyner says:

    @mantis: That, I can’t say. I’m just making the claim that the brightest students who come out of our colleges of education are the best candidates for exiting the teaching profession early.

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  16. Trumwill says:

    My original minor was in education, because I had designs on teaching. It was a pretty thoroughly depressing experience. The professors had to talk to us like we were brain-dead and, when I looked at a lot of the students surrounding me, I understood why. I was anti-CoE for a long time after that.

    I substitute taught last year, and that revised my views somewhat. I still think that for secondary ed we need to do something different, for a variety of reasons, but I think there is more value in pedagogy courses than I had really given credit for, and that would need to be a part of the equation. Half of teaching, if not more, seems to be classroom management (or maybe that’s just for subs?).

    With regard to the question of best/worst teachers leaving, I think a better way of framing it is most/least ambitious. The work conditions (heavily structured), pay structure (good pension, mediocre pay), and so on are good for the unambitious person who doesn’t want to make a lot of money, is kind of happy doing what they are told, but doesn’t mind working the hours or enduring the stress of the job.

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  17. Laurie says:

    @Boyd: I am enjoying my teaching career (elem ed/spec. ed) yet find myself wanting to dissuade my very smart niece from choosing this occupation (she plans to be a HS English teacher.) For me the biggest dissatisfaction is pay, especially now that funding college is a difficult stretch. I have mixed feelings about trends in education, more challenging students, higher expectations, flat or declining funding. I am a non union charter school teacher who supports many of proposed reforms. I’d write more but it is my last day of vacation and I am going to the beach (time home with the kids in the summer has been the biggest benefit!)

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