By KC Johnson
The Pope Center posts a provocative "clarion call" for reform in Education schools--coming from an Education professor, Nick Shudak of Mount Marty College. Shudak sees as soluble the problem besetting college and university Education departments, but through the kind of courageous action that, I suspect, can only come from outside the ranks of the faculty.
Shudak, who chairs his school's Education division and in 2009 received a Ph.D. from UNC, offers a series of proposals that anyone interested in the best possible instructors teaching American public school students should support. He (correctly) contends that the problem begins with student recruitment. Education departments have poor reputations on campus; talented undergraduates generally major in liberal arts or the hard sciences. Shudak recalls that when he was an undergraduate and told fellow political science majors that he planned to switch to Education, "Many couldn't believe that someone who could choose from a variety of careers in the political arena or law would go into teaching instead." This bad on-campus reputation means that "many talented students are dissuaded from becoming teachers."
The problem persisted into his graduate career, when Shudak took not only education offerings but also courses in philosophy and political science. He reports that "many of my professors warned me that education students do not generally fare well in their classes." I strongly suspect that lots of professors around the country have had similar conversations; I certainly have heard such complaints at Brooklyn.
If Education programs disproportionately attract weaker students, then Education professors disproportionately do a poor job of teaching them. Shudak justifies preserving the ideal of an Education curriculum (rather than simply abolishing Education departments) by suggesting that prospective public school teachers need to have a rigorous background in such topics as the philosophy, history, and sociology of education. Too often, however, he fears that Education professors teach these courses in a manner divorced from any real-world applications, causing bored students to tune them out. And that’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case: “Fads have distracted us from focusing on a rich history of identifiable teaching methods that actually work, that actually lead toward student and school achievement.”
Finally, Shudak concedes the point raised by critics of Education schools and confirmed in the dispositions controversy—that one-sided ideological instruction permeates Education classrooms.” In my experience,” he observes, “foundations courses are sites for teaching radicalized ideas about class struggle, multiculturalism, social reconstruction, radical democracy, critical pedagogy, race theory, etc. Disciplinary integrity gets lost in the mix when activists use their classes for bullying students into ‘correct’ thinking,” resulting in “ideologically-laden courses focusing more on what to think rather than how to think.”
Shudak’s article raises two additional important issues. First, he suggests that their diversity/social justice obsession actually encourages Education professors to seek out weaker students to enter the teaching profession. “Some education school professors,” Shudak discouragingly notes, “relish trying to bring up these lower performing college students because they ostensibly were victims of a debilitating system and because the professors view education as a way to save and reconstruct society. That ‘Mother of Exiles’ mindset must go. Education schools should strive to enroll better students who will be devoted to instructing young Americans, not to shape weak students into ideological ‘change agents.’”
Second, Shudak worries that the field’s politically one-sided courses disproportionately affect, in a negative manner, prospective math and science teachers. These students, he believes, “are repulsed by the infatuation with diversity, multiculturalism, race theory and other trendy achievement-gap explaining ideas commonly countenanced in education schools”—issues that have little, if anything, to do with the areas that they desire to teach. “As a result, the country loses out on good math and science teachers every year who would rather take their chances in graduate school.”
These two arguments deserve much more attention than they have, to date, received.
Shudak’s piece provides an unusually perceptive analysis of the problems facing Education schools nationally. But he’s shakier in offering suggestions for improvement, given his belief that “dissolving the ed schools and starting a new system . . . isn’t an option.” Perhaps not, but at the very least, doing everything possible to provide alternative pathways for accrediting prospective teachers must be an option.
Shudak pushes first for doing more to attract better students to Education programs, and then for improving the curriculum. He sees the two problems as linked, and doubts that “we will get the best and the brightest until deans weed out politically slanted courses and focus on scholarship and what works rather than activism. That won’t be easy or pleasant for deans because that status quo has been quite comfortable for some. But it’s essential.”
Yet there’s virtually no evidence to suggest that Education deans (who, after all, generally come from the ranks of Education faculty) have any interest in weeding out politically slanted courses. Indeed, as seen in dispositions controversies from Brooklyn to Washington State to Alaska-Fairbanks, administrators in Education departments were as committed to maintaining ideologically one-sided classes as the professors over whom they presided.
Given the importance of public education, it would be nice to think that politicians or state education boards will do more to achieve the common-sense goals that Shudak envisions. But are such hopes realistic? The recent OCR letter shows that the Obama administration will not act to constrain the excesses of the on-campus “diversity” agenda. States under Democratic political control mostly seem comfortable with the status quo.
If nothing else, state-level conservatives have a political incentive in promoting Education school reform, if only to prevent taxpayer- supported training of a new generation of far-left social activists. Yet recent high-profile efforts from the right have been disappointing. The new history standards offered in Texas seemed chiefly designed to replace a left-wing bias with a right-wing bias. Marc Mutty, the spokesman of the organization that successfully stripped from Maine’s gay and lesbian citizens the right to civil marriage, demanded that the state legislature pass a law censoring public schoolteachers from mentioning same-sex marriage in front of students. (How such a statute would have regulated interactions between teachers and children of married gay couples Mutty never revealed.) This year, the Tennessee state Senate expanded upon the Maine concept, passing a widely mocked “don’t-say-gay” education bill. Whatever else can be said about the merits (or demerits) of these proposals, they provided ammunition to members of the higher-ed establishment eager to discredit as unserious all criticism coming from conservative or libertarian political sources.
With Education (and campus) administrators too often resolutely committed to the status quo, with Democratic politicians too often following the administration’s troublesome lead, and with conservative activists too often seeking to impose their own social or political values on schoolchildren, the constituencies most likely to take up the cause of improving the education that Education students receive are alumni and—especially—trustees. The former can target donations to innovative Education programs; the latter can provide the critical administrative support to the handful of courageous administrators willing to implement Shudak’s goal of weeding out politically slanted courses from Education curricula. Will either group have the foresight to act?