a version of this essay was published in educational Horizons, Spring 2003

Cannonfodder: Preparing Teachers for Public Schools

Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.
Widener University

links checked 3/14/18

A Disappointed Teacher

I received this letter from a reader responding to an educational Horizons column I had written 1 on the unreasonable expectations imposed on teachers.

All of my life, I dreamed of becoming a teacher. After raising my family, I went to college to earn my teaching certificate. We sacrificed (monetarily and emotionally) for many years as I had to commute over two hours each day while moonlighting as a waitress, mom, wife, etc. Finally, I graduated cum laude with a BS in Secondary English from ----- University! Wow! The world is my oyster, right? I secured a teaching job at one of the junior high schools in my hometown. I swore all of my prayers had been answered!

There are no words to describe my feelings as the school year began. I can tell you that I quit 184 times that year. I am so disappointed and ashamed of wasting so much money and time on a teaching degree that is now my demise. To make matters worse, I thought my frustrations were because of my own ignorance, so I earned my masters degree in the Education of Exceptional Learners K-12, hoping to learn to "cope" with what was expected of and blamed on me, as a teacher.

After ten years, I am so burned out I could cry, and usually do. The thought of a new school year, new IEP's, new ridiculous requests, parents, etc., just about puts me over the edge. As a young (in years teaching), yet old (in age) teacher, my colleagues consist of a.) "I have ___ years until I can retire" or b.) "I couldn't care less." They laugh at my frustrations and tell me to just "chill." My family thinks teaching is the best thing since sliced bread, " ... off all summer? I don't even want to hear you!" Yet, I feel the hurt, and I know in my heart that I have changed more, become more callused, less believing, more cynical than I have in my entire lifetime. In my opinion, teaching is impossible for someone who still has feelings and values and believes in education the way I always have. How very, very sad...

AJ, Smalltown, U.S.A.

In the courses I teach (taught, 1992-2009) at Widener University (ret.) for graduate level teacher/administrator certificate candidates I pose them the question, "Why do so many drop out of teaching?" and show them this letter. I explain to them that, unlike the medical professions, law enforcement, and the military, prospective teachers are seldom exposed to the more unpleasant aspects of their intended occupation before they encounter them on the job. Indeed, in many preparation programs the down-side of employment in public education is ignored completely. Or what is worse, teacher-preparers not infrequently insinuate that if anything is wrong with the schools, it is the fault of present job-holders whom the present aspirants in their classes, through messianic dedication and whiz-bang new methods, will soon replace.

"Are you really sure this is the profession for you?" I ask my students. "Perhaps what you learn in this course will help you find out."

I tell my students at Widener that their last in-class assignment will be to compose a letter offering support and suggestions to the writer of the letter above. 2 The class responses to AJ's letter are varied and show interesting patterns: older aspirants in the process of job change as well as experienced teachers tend to be sympathetic. Surprisingly -- considering the sloganeering they often hear to the contrary -- in their letters these older people often suggest, "Lower your expectations!" "Not everybody can learn everything!" "Some kids aren't ready: it's not your fault!"

Younger persons with no teaching experience often become upset at the letter and suggest the writer has emotional or even mental problems. Their end-of-term suggestions -- although modified somewhat by what they have learned in the course -- are much crueler.

One young teacher with some experience in elementary education chided me, "You shouldn't show newcomers this letter. It will disillusion them. How can you expect people to go into teaching if they know about things like this? Prospective teachers need idealism: it is a very precious thing."

"Do you mean that it is important," I replied, "to be ignorant and naive to be a professional educator? Should we have ignorant and naive doctors, nurses, police, and military personnel as well? Would this make them better." I continued that in all likelihood half of the people in the room would drop out of teaching within five years or sooner and I felt compelled to arm them with something other than ignorance and naivete to help them stuggle to survive in the profession.

The vise of ideology

Unfortunately there seem to be more than a few of my confreres in education who hold opinions similar to my fourth-grade teacher: people must be duped into becoming public school teachers. Rather than teaching them how organizational problems impact their classrooms and how to go about dealing with them, such knowledge is abstemiously parceled out even in courses for prospective administrators. Would-be teachers are given to believe that the academic success of their students is primarily, if not solely, a matter of their own personal knowledge, skills and dispositions. Accrediting bodies often base their approval on this specious doctrine.

Just in case would-be teachers might actually be tempted to become the kind of reflective educator they are sometimes told they should be, they are required to manifest allegiance to the latest fashion in educational ideology in a variety of ways that subtly threaten their grades, dignity and self-esteem should self-reflection yield non-conformity. A student entering a teacher preparation program in a purportedly "secular" university is far more likely to be ambushed by dogmatic, thought-controlling professors than at an openly professed religious institution.[2a]

Thirty years ago in many states in this land of the free, one had to be ready to "Stamp out Non-behavioral Objectives!" to secure a position as a teacher or professor. Then came, "Basic Competencies" and "Generic Teaching" and "Outcomes Based Education" as the incantation required to prove suitability for hiring. One should not imagine that any real demonstrations of intellectual acuity or competence were required for any of these. They were passwords into the club.

It would be unwise to invoke "stupidity" at this point and turn our attention to other matters. It is much more productive of insight to assume a rationality hidden behind the pursuit of unprofessed goals. It is the political vulnerability of public teacher-educators in our society that underlies their insistence that teacher-candidates need be prepared with nothing beyond a myopic technique-focus: Knowledges, Skills & Dispositions. You will find professional organizations promulgating this myopia; the teacher dropout rate of 13% per year gives the lie to its adequacy. 3

With rhetorical wind no longer billowing the sails of "Outcomes Based Education" or, even, "Effective Schools," the  current shibboleths are "Best Practices" and "Constructivism."

The Best Practices Mythology

Ask your doctor, "What are the Best Practices in Medicine?" Ask your plumber, "What are the Best Practices in Plumbing?' I suspect that, unless they are very tactful people, they will laugh at you. But they might be nice and ask you in return, "Best Practices for What Purpose? Under what special conditions?" If you are really lucky, they might ask you, "What's wrong with just Good Practices? Why would we want to incur the costs of identifying "best practices" in advance of knowing the special circumstances that help determine what best practices are?"

I was chairing a search committee and I asked a visiting candidate about her dissertation, done at a prestigious university. She replied that she had done an experimental design where two classes were taught using Best Practices and two other, similar in every other feature, used other than Best Practices.The results? No difference in academic performance between the four classes. However, she went on, there were some interesting indicators for future study.

I pressed, "Did you comment on your results as possibly indicating that whatever it was you identified as best practices might have failed?" "No," she insisted. "That wouldn't be a valid conclusion. Best Practices couldn't have failed."

I try to teach my students to evaluate claims by asking what kind of evidence would settle them. Secondly, they should consider whether is it plausible that anyone would have assumed the costs of getting that evidence. One finds very few claims in education established in such a careful manner. As a dissertation advisor I continually insist that my graduate students make a very simple but important distinction. Opinions gleaned by a survey that indicate, for example, that groupwork is perceived to be effective, do not establish that groupwork is effective. This difference is often ignored, not only in educational research, but in social science research generally -- and abetted by purported "post-modern" theorists who claim that the distinction between group perception and fact is passe. 4

Constructivism: the new scientism?

I had been hearing students and colleagues drop the word "constructivism" into their conversation for several years without my paying much attention to it. I assumed it was just a rather belated recognition of Immanuel Kant's contribution that many of the objects of experience may be partially the contributions of the way our minds work, e.g. cause, space, and time, for example, are not "out there" in the world, but somehow a result of how we interface with what is "out there." 5

Awakening one cold winter's day from my philosophical slumbers, I realized the "constructivism" was clearly the shiniest, newest slogan in education. I was interviewing a candidate -- again, from a prestigious university -- for a position at Widener. One of the committee members asked him, "What is your philosophy of education?" (Since this is my area of interest, I seldom ask just anyone that question: I expect too much for an answer.)

"I am a Constructivist," came the reply.

I asked, "How does being a Constructivist make your teaching different from someone who is not a Constructivist?" 6

Thus spake the applicant: "As a Constructivist I am concerned that students understand what they are learning. Other kinds of teachers just give out grades."

I went looking for some sources on Constructivism. 7 I found a website on Epistemological Constructivism 8 featuring the "basic principles" of Ernst von Glasersfeld defining radical constructivism. I give you an example here for your consideration:

Knowledge is not passively received either through the senses or by way of communication, but is actively built up by the cognizing subject.

A very cursory analysis easily shows us that von Glasersfeld cannot, by his own lights know his principle. He invokes an underlying principle of mutual exclusion to rule out -- by fiat, it appears -- that knowledge must be received either through the senses, or by communication or some other way. He then opts for some other way -- active construction by the cognizing subject! 9 But how does he know these are the correct options? Certainly not, on his account, by any finite number of cognitions within experience. Other critiques have far more damning things to say about this kind of rhetorical fol-de-rol. 10

Constructivism is, to say the least, a term used to refer to a highly contentious and disagreed upon mélange of concepts. 11 The debate around it is a morass of conflicting positions and assorted jabberwocky. Constructivism is not at all a coherent theory that should be foisted off on students as though it were an undisputable scientific foundation for pedagogical practice.

What is a prospective teacher to do? One can arm oneself to be sensitive to the linguistic games one is exposed to and not to let oneself be upset by verbalisms. But where does one get that kind of preparation? Nowadays, hardly anywhere. Besides, it is very hard to keep a clear mind when one's institution is caught up in the Accreditation Game.

The Accredition Game

A father came to speak with me when I was headmaster of an academic prep school. "Why are you going to let Mrs. James require my daughter, Jennie, to do a senior history project and risk her high grade point average? If she can avoid that project she'll probably end up as valedictorian of her class."

Experienced teachers report parental comments such as, "What's going on in your class that my child is only getting a B?" "Why should my son's chances of getting into Princeton suffer just because you say he plagiarized?"

Fifty years of Gallup polling 12 seem to support an interesting thesis: the firmness of a person's conviction that American schools fail because American teachers fail is inversely related to the evidence that person has for that conviction.

So, the logic goes, to assure good schools, we must assure good teachers. To assure good teachers, teacher training institutions should be accredited. Accreditation assures the public that what a college says it is training its teachers to do, is, in fact, what it is training them to do.

Up to a point, an accredition requirement need not be unreasonable. All the States do accreditation, being very careful not to impose religious or philosophical restrictions on the teacher training institutions. State evaluations merely require that each institution within the framework of its own mission and philosophy show that it has the resources allocated to carry out the teacher training program it purports to have. What is important to note here is that no common goal is assumed to be shared among teacher training institutions.

Imagine a country, Erewhon, that sets all its clocks against a central clock: time units must be standardized, functioning must be reliable, people must care that such uniformity is available.  State certification is Erewhon before there was a central clock. National Accreditation assumes there is such a central clock: a science of pedagogy, a consensus on goals. But is there? It appears not. 13

National board accreditation is somewhat more demanding than state accredition. TEAC, the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, for example, presses institutions applying for accreditation from them to show that evidence is gathered on a regular basis to determine whether the results aimed for in the program are in fact achieved. However, if TEAC, rather than the applicant institution, were to define what constitutes acceptable evidence, this would clearly be much more of a philosophical imposition than the States require.

Bigger, well-funded schools see accreditation demands as a plus. Accreditation drives out those institutions that can't afford the process or its requirements and reduces competition, provided people know and care whether teachers have come from accredited preparation programs. Of course, educators don't like to publically admit they think about beating out competition. It seems far nobler to talk of "improving teacher education."

I recently spent over eight hours with a consultant in small group sessions in which were explained the program and unit approval requirements of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). After careful listening and questioning I could not avoid two inferences.

The first is that, if what the institution pursuing NCATE accreditation is after is competitive advantage, then the approval rate indicated by the consultant of 85% on the first application with an additional 13% approved on the second, gives little competitive advantage; particularly as it is unlikely that the accreditation will increase income sufficiently during the short period before competitors acquire similar accreditation to make up the substantial expenses of the accreditation process.

A subsidiary consideration is the number of ephemeral, non-accredited programs from any of a number of colleges and universities that can come into a short-lived existence and grab some of the market of certification seekers. Many states actually encourage such entrepreneurship. The viability of such enterprises argues against accrediting organizations' claims that their approval is very important to employers.

My second conclusion is that what NCATE may in fact be offering is collusion in delusion, in order for education departments to wrangle back a share of the monies that their abstemious home institutions vampirize from them each year to fund money-losing activities dearer to the trustee's hearts. (Education departments are "cash-cows" for many a university.) So the accrediting agency insinuates, "If you say you meet our requirements, we'll agree with you; so long as you pay our (hefty) fees."

Can you imagine a medical school's licensure depending on its being able to show that patients -- irrespective of their circumstances -- treated by its graduates show an improvement in their well being? Yet NCATE requires evidence that schoolkids -- irrespective of their circumstances -- taught by a program's graduates show scholastic improvement. For example, the 2002 Edition of NCATE Professional Standards indicates that

"Candidates develop and demonstrate proficiencies that support learning by all students as shown in their work with students with exceptionalities   and those from diverse ethnic, racial, gender and socioeconomic groups in classrooms and schools."14

Luckily, this is the top-level "target" requirement. Being unsuccessful is acceptable, as it should be for any race of beings yet to achieve divinity. What the teacher candidate at a school angling for such approval can expect is a lot of activity, pursued with breathless anticipation, that in the long run may contribute little to their long-term job survival. 15

The Teacher Shortage Myth

Reconsider the sad lot of AJ, whose letter we read at the beginning of this essay. Clearly a dedicated, idealistic person, she no doubt was exposed in her long years of training to many, many of the nostrums and gimcracks that constitute knowledge at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, those special spells and potions that enable ordinary school teachers to offset the effects of poverty, abuse, and addiction to make each and every student, irrespective of his or her physical, mental or social condition, a first rate, world-class scholar, pushing to the limits of his or her potential to achieve excellence.

But what if AJ's failure is more a matter of the conditions in which she works, than of the circumstances of her preparation? What if her loss resulted no so much from the simulacra of science she encountered as a trainee, but from the mere fact that her principal was more concerned to maintain daily attendance, than to deal with even outrageous classroom disruption, with her persistent public humiliation, with student threats and acts of intimidation, by suspending the culprits? This puts a very different face on what can and must be done to help teachers teach and students learn.

In the Summer of 1965 I went for special training in the New Math. I was well paid and fed, got an interesting review of all the mathematics I had studied as an undergraduate but got nothing I could use back in the junior high school where I taught. My biggest problem was getting my ninth grade students to stop fighting and sit down. When they did calm down somewhat it seemed that their attention was more readily focussed on members of the opposite sex than on the fact that multiplication was distributive over addition.

If Richard Ingersoll's research 16 is correct and it is working conditions rather than lack of preparation that drive teachers away from the public schools, then we might do well to look to see whether these same conditions can account for the poor performance of students where it occurs. My years of classroom experience tell me that poor working conditions for teachers are poor learning conditions for children.

But the leaders of our professional educational organizations and of our colleges and universities are far from our public school classrooms. Their strategies and manipulations to capture a piece of the teacher preparation dollar explains not only their Byzantine interconnections with accrediting agencies, but also why the prospective teacher, whose pre-service career they readily control, serves not only as the test rabbit for their educational experiments, but also as the scapegoat for failure.

1 Ed Horizons Summer 2001 see http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/WhatCanTeacherDo.html

2 I have lost the original email-document in which this letter was sent. I have only the version I edited to preserve anonymity. I would appreciate hearing again from the person who sent me this letter to find out what has happened over this intervening time. For similar conderations see "Late Night Thoughts on the Death of Christa McAuliffe."

2a. See Jay Matthews, "Class Struggle: they messed with the wrong blogger" Washington Post
(No longer available at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle/2009/07/they_messed_with_the_wrong_blo.html -- 5/29/20)

See also, Greg Lukianoff, Washington Post: "Stanford Ed School Hounds Blogger" available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-lukianoff/washington-post-stanford_b_244636.html

3 Richard M. Ingersoll "Teacher Turnover and Teacher Shortages: An Organizational Analysis." American Educational Research Journal, 37, no. 3 (2001): 499-534.

4 For an expanded version of this argument see  educational Horizons 81,2 (Winter 2003), "What Works ? Under What Conditions? And Who Really Cares? See, also, "Evaluating Best Practices"

5 Thus, Nietzsche's comment that our brains are the constructions of our brains.

6 This is a trick question to see if the respondent knows enough to answer that only under certain conditions need commitment to a theory manifest itself in behavior. They don't normally catch this -- an indicator of an incomplete education.

7 An interesting one is Andrew Elby, "What students' learning of representations tells us about constructivism." http://www2.physics.umd.edu/~elby/papers/constructivism/representations.htm

8 http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/CONSTRUC.html

9 I tell you that cyanide is poisonous and show you a reference in the US Pharmacopaeia. You feed it to your spouse, nonetheless. As a Constructivist your defense in Court is that since you only received the information via communication, you did not know cyanide was poisonous.

10 See, Martin A. Kozloff, "Constructivism in Education: Sophistry for a New Age" at http://pennance.us/home/documents/Constructivism.pdf

11 For an unemotional review, see Peter Slezak "A Critique of Radical Social Constructivism" at http://hps.arts.unsw.edu.au/hps_core_links/staff_homepages/p_slezak_site/Article%20Links/Slezak-Soc%20Constructivism.pdf

12 A number of these surveys are available on Phil Delta Kappa's website 

13 See Baines, Lawrence, Wade Carpenter, and Gregory Stanley. "Generic Engineering: The Standardization of Teacher Education." Journal of Thought, Summer 2000: 35-44.

14 Professional Standards for the Accreditation of Schools, Colleges and Departments of Education. 2002 Edition. Washington: National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. P.27.

15 See Vergari, Sandra & Hess, Frederick M. "The Accreditation Game" Education Next Fall 2002, 48-57.

16 Ingersoll, op.cit.