Lock Up the Principals!

Lock em up!  Charge em with felonies!

That is the prescription for education reform from Professor Richard Vedder.  In the pages of Minding the Campus, Vedder lamented recently the sad state of affairs in schools that train America’s teachers.  Ed schools, Vedder pointed out, do not attract the best or the brightest.  On elite campuses, Vedder argues, ed schools are seen as a “weak link, sometimes something of an embarrassment.”  Such lackluster ed schools only perpetuate an educational miasma.

How to get around this?  Vedder offers a bold plan:

the goal should be to eliminate undergraduate colleges of education. And rather than fight the battle one university at a time, state governments can make it happen easily:  make it a felony for a principal to knowingly hire a graduate of a college of education to teach our youth in public schools.

Though I am a card-carrying faculty member at one of the schools Vedder wants to criminalize, I will not use this space to defend schools like mine.  Instead, I will only point out the somewhat surprising durability of this anti-ed-school animus among American conservatives.

Why has the ed school been seen for so long as such an intellectually dangerous place?

Perhaps a look at the twentieth-century record will help…

In the ferociously anti-communist atmosphere of the 1930s, for instance, many conservative activists blamed ed schools for training subversive teachers.

In 1938, American Legion national leader Daniel Doherty claimed that “Many of our institutions of higher learning are hotbeds of Communism.”

Doherty was in illustrious company.  A few years earlier, conservative US Congressman Hamilton Fish had denounced schools such as Columbia, New York University, City College of New York, the University of Chicago, Wisconsin, Penn, and North Carolina as “honeycombed with Socialists, near Communists and Communists.”

Into the 1950s, leading conservatives blamed ed schools for promulgating terrible teaching.  In his blockbuster phonics book Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955), for example, Rudolph Flesch blamed Teachers College, Columbia, for masterminding a plot to spread ineffective but progressive reading techniques.

flesch why johnny cant readAs usual, among educational conservatives, few have articulated an idea with the same style and verve as the prolific Max Rafferty, in the 1960s the State Superintendent of Education in California.  In his syndicated column, published in book form in 1963 as Suffer, Little Children, Rafferty zeroed in on the role of education schools in promoting educational blah.

At that time, Rafferty identified the danger as a wrong-headed and misleadingly named “progressive education.”  Such dunderheaded notions, Rafferty argued, oozed out of ed schools to create a nation barely able to compete with the aggressive Soviet Union.



As Rafferty put it,

For thirty years, our Columbia University philosophers, our educational psychologists, and our state department consultants have been leading us down a primrose path where report cards read like Abbott and Costello comedy routines, where competition was a naughty word, and where memorization and drill were relics of the Dark Ages.

In the last three years, we have found out for ourselves that our morals are rotten, our world position degenerating so abysmally that a race of lash-driven atheistic peasants can challenge us successfully in our own chosen field of science, and our rate of juvenile murder, torture, rape, and perversion so much the highest in the world that it has become an object of shuddering horror to the rest of the human race.  More, our greatest leaders today, both in and out of Education, now assure us that these fairy stories with which we have for thirty years bulwarked our thinking and our actions are just—plain—not—true.

My hunch is that Superintendent Rafferty would approve of Professor Vedder’s suggestion.  Close down the ed schools, teach teachers the way we teach everybody else.

My hunch is that somewhere at the back of this conservative ire is a feeling that education schools have become the domain of the academic left.  On many campuses, not only do education schools represent a different sort of student, they often also represent a dwindling redoubt of the unapologetic academic left.

Are there other reasons why smart conservatives feel such virulent distaste for ed schools?





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  1. I would actually agree with Mr. Vedder about doing away with undergraduate Education colleges, but I seriously doubt that he would enjoy my company. You see, I think Education studies should be graduate level work. Just as aspiring lawyers and doctors don’t major in law or medicine but must wait until grad school to tackle those studies, I think aspiring teachers should first do their undergrad studies in whatever subject they wish to teach, then learn the educator’s craft at grad school. After all, teachers are at least as important to our society as lawyers and doctors. Their training should be just as rigorous. I also think teachers should be making money equal to what doctors and lawyers do. And, they should enjoy the same amount of prestige.

    Yeah, I don’t think Mr. Vedder would like me very much.

  2. On Rafferty: YES, he had plenty of vitriol for Ed schools, especiallyTC. However, he is a *bit* different in that he also was a big advocate for the teaching profession and for treating teachers as professionals, a stance that has become rare among people who otherwise might gravitate toward his ideas

    • Good point. And a perplexing one. I assume a good bit of the anti-ed-school animus comes from a desire to undermine the professional status of teachers. But Rafferty did not share that desire. So why did he have such a beef with TC and other educational “hierophants?”

  3. I graduated with a teaching degree a few years ago. The problem, as I saw, was twofold. First, the Gen Ed classes are way too easy. I know that this is a big problem in all majors, but in teaching there are bigger consequences because they take they limited subject knowledge to the classroom. For example, at my university I only needed to take one entry level class in a life science of my choice and one in a physical science of my choice. So it’s easy to get a teaching degree without taking biology 101 or astronomy 101. That gives creationist teachers an easy way to earn a degree at a secular university without their beliefs ever being challenged.

    The second problem is that the people who opt for education majors tend not to be the most academically gifted. I know lots of my peers would insist otherwise, but it’s true. I’ve read that the central problem is that education used to attract the smartest female students, and over time as women gained greater opportunities, the smartest women opted for more challenging fields. That rings true to me. (BTW, the percentage of females to males in my classes was overwhelming. It wasn’t unusual to have a class with 4 men and 24 women.) Vedder’s idea would screen out a large number of these students, which would make for a smaller pool of teachers in the workforce, and that would have its own negative consequences.

  1. Ed Schools and the Perversion of Teaching | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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