The Corner

Politics & Policy

What’s Wrong with Our Education Schools?

A teacher, wearing a protecive face mask, teaches to schoolchildren in France. April 2, 2021. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

The way we train teachers (most of them, anyway), has long been a problem. Writers including Rita Kramer, Thomas Sowell, and Heather Mac Donald have argued that what students learn in the education-school courses they must take to become certified is a waste of time, or worse. “Progressive” educational fads prevail. Knowledge is sneered at. Mac Donald entitled one of her essays “Anything But Knowledge.”

Another ed school critic is Professor Lucien Ellington of the University of Tennessee — Chattanooga and in today’s Martin Center article, he argues that we used to do teacher education pretty well and ought to go back to the 19th-century “normal school” approach if possible.

Our public schools are largely dysfunctional. The poor reading skills of many students should be a matter of national shame, and Ellington pins the blame on the ed schools, where few professors teach our future teachers to use methods that work.

The trouble with teacher training, however, goes back much further than the “reading wars” of recent decades. Ellington points to the malign influence of John Dewey, writing, “In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, philosopher John Dewey and his followers developed ‘progressive education,’ advocating that children’s experiences, problem-solving, and education for democracy should supplant systematic study of academic subjects, especially in elementary school.”

This approach became known as “student-centered education.” It leaves many students adrift.

That shift to “progressive” education was a disastrous mistake, Ellington argues. The older “normal school” approach served America very well.

He continues, “Normal school faculty encouraged what came to be labeled ‘the normal school spirit.’ Teaching was a calling and moral and civic education were imperative. Alexander McMurry was a prolific normal school speaker and thought leader who developed a widely used civic education curriculum using history, literature, and effective lesson plans incorporating learning facts, digesting knowledge, and absorption and reflection.”

If politicians actually cared about quality education (as opposed to currying favor with the education establishment), they would change teacher-certification and school-accreditation laws. We need to get out of the “progressive education” rut.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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