American education is in serious disarray. Over the last 40 years, we've increased education spending by the billions while education results slide deeper into mediocrity. Now the President and Congress have another scheme to fix education. They propose spending more billions to hire more teachers in order to reduce class sizes. Like past promises this scheme will also produce disappointment. American education will not improve until we summon the courage to confront a vital component of the problem - teachers.
Dr. Thomas Sowell addresses that issue in his book, "Inside American Education." In 1980-81, students majoring in education scored lower on both the verbal and math portions of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) than students majoring in any other subject. Only 7 percent of high school seniors with SAT scores in the top 20 percent, and 13 percent in the next quintile, chose to major in education. At the other end of the academic spectrum, more than half of those with SAT scores in the lowest 20 percent chose education as a major. Eighty-five percent of high SAT scoring students who actually become teachers leave after a brief career.
Education majors remain at the bottom of the academic barrel after four years of college. The National Institute of Education conducted a study of student performance on examinations (LSAT, GMAT and GRE) to gain entrance to graduate schools. Of twenty-five different undergraduate study areas, students whose undergraduate major was education scored at the bottom or at best second from the bottom.
Education majors supply not only teachers, counselors and administrators, but also professors of education and leaders of the education establishment. Sowell says professors of education rank just as low among college and university faculty members as education students do among other students. Given low-quality students and low-quality professors, it is hardly surprising to discover that "most education courses are not intellectually respectable, because their teachers and the textbooks are not intellectually respectable." Neither is it surprising to find these people falling easy prey to fads and hare-brained schemes.
Does more teacher training help? In the early 1960s, when student SAT scores peaked, fewer than one-fourth of all public school teachers had a postgraduate degree; 15 percent lacked even a Bachelor's degree. By 1981, when SAT scores hit bottom, a bit more than half of all teachers had Master's degrees and less than one percent lacked a Bachelor's degree. Advanced degrees do more for teacher salaries than student proficiency.
The public education establishment has a vested interest in the status quo that stifles competition. Competition produces winners and losers. Education majors have every reason to fear competition with other college graduates. They fear the weakening of iron-clad tenure rules and parental school choice. Professors of education, like their students, are also vulnerable. Competition would make their shoddy product more apparent.
Not all public school teachers are incompetent. In fact, public schools in some high-income areas are for all intents and purposes private schools. Parents are well-heeled, well-informed and well-connected. Administrators are held to high accountability standards and will oust incompetent teachers. But incompetent teachers are not fired; they're reassigned. The burden of teacher incompetency is borne by less well off students, particularly poor black students. Even if parents know their children are receiving a fraudulent education they don't have money or clout to do anything about it. Their plight is worsened by the unquestioned support black politicians and civil rights groups give the education establishment.
"What can be done, Williams?" you say. There are a couple of starters: close all education departments on college campuses, eliminate tenure, and have a school choice system.
Walter E. Williams
April 7, 1999Return to Articles page