This was written by Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at The University of Georgia and a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association. Here he critiques a report that was published by the American Enterprise Institute in August and titled, “Grade Inflation for Education Majors and Low Standards for Teachers: When Everyone Makes the Grade.” The title tells you exactly what’s in that report.
By Peter Smagorinsky
I began teaching in 1976, first in high schools and ultimately in teacher education programs. Much has changed in my 35 years as a teacher, but one thing remains constant: I have always held myself accountable for my students’ learning. When students have done poorly in my classes, I have tried to understand how I could have taught the class better in order to produce richer learning. When they have done well, I have assumed that my annual adjustments have worked enough so that students grasped the course content and learned how to engage with it in their writing. Although some students have done poorly no matter what I’ve done, I’ve always tried to make myself responsible to a great degree for what students learn and how their grades reflect that learning.
However, in an August 2011 report written by Economics Professor Cory Koedel at the University of California at San Diego, a very different set of assumptions is at work.
To Koedel, who is the latest in the current wave of educational experts who have never taught in a K-12 school, when education students get good grades, it’s because the teacher has low standards, not because the teacher has worked hard to insure rich learning and high-level academic performances. Koedel’s report was published by theAmerican Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington D.C. dedicated to “expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening free enterprise.” The institute says it values “independent thinking, open debate, reasoned argument, facts, and the highest standards of research and exposition,” yet all of their publications seem to reach the same conclusion: that free market solutions solve all problems.
I’m no economist, so I can’t say how the sort of open educational market that Koedel embraces would actually work. Yet though Koedel is no expert on schools, he and other entrepreneurs think that they know my business better than I do.
People who don’t understand schools tend to find them easy environments to manage. Everything gets reduced to simple statistics that tell the whole story (for the most part, multiple-choice standardized test scores). It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are: Facts are facts and figures are figures, and if you find the particular set of facts and figures that they favor to be problematic, then you are part of the problem.
Koedel’s beliefs rest on his finding that students in education classes, since 1960, have been awarded higher grades than students in other university disciplines. He bases this conclusion on two studies, one from 1960 and one that he has conducted more recently. If two studies find the same thing a half-century apart, he reasons, then everything happening in between — not to mention before and after — must be that way as well.
Koedel illustrates his belief about low educational standards with an anecdote about a school administrator who believes her teachers are all doing well until pressed to say whether or not she’d want her own children taught by them. The school administrator’s answer that ‘no, she would not,’ enables Koedel to condemn university education programs across the nation over a 50-year span, and by implication, forever and beyond.
Using anecdotal evidence, I could prove just about anything. My son is an economics major in college and complains that his economics professors are terrible teachers because they don’t explain the concepts clearly and because they evaluate him by means of tests instead of by more realistic and complex problem-solving that requires the application of economics concepts. Using Koedel’s reasoning process, I could conclude that economics professors are universally, and always have been, lousy teachers because they give low grades based on poor instruction and misplaced assessments. My son’s belief in their ineptitude proves it, because single anecdotes provide conclusive evidence.
Koedel’s reasoning throughout his report is specious. He says at one point, “I am not aware of any rigorous evidence that explicitly links higher grading standards in education departments to improved teaching performance in K-12 schools. But this does not mean a link does not exist” — he just hasn’t found evidence to support it yet. He then asserts the link as a fact. A stock broker friend of mine once told me that people throwing darts at a random map of corporations could predict the market as well as most trained economists do. I’ve never found evidence to support this assertion, but it looks like a fact to me if recent market forecasts are any indication, and that’s good enough for Koedel, so it’s good enough for me.
Here’s another example of his reasoning: “Undergraduate education majors become teachers, teachers become principals, and principals become district-level administrators,” proving to Koedel that easy grading in university teacher education programs (or at least the two he features in his article) leads to lax standards all the way up the ladder. I suppose that he assumes that nothing intervenes in the 20-30 years between being a college kid — perhaps with conscientious education faculty whose good teaching produces rich learning and thus high grades — and running a school district. I imagine it also enables me to blame the recent Wall Street crisis on incompetent university economics professors and the dysfunctional ethical and intellectual culture they foster.
To Koedel, “The fundamental problem is simple: there is no pressure from competitive markets in education.” First, he sees the problem and solution as “simple,” and anyone who thinks that operating schools effectively is simple is an ignoramus. Second, he’s wrong. There are plenty of alternatives, from homeschooling to private schools to transfer options to alternative schools to changing teachers to dropping out and working. But that fact is inconvenient to his simplistic belief in free markets. He also asserts that “the solution, as with any market failure, is external intervention.” I wonder how the American Enterprise Institute feels about solving problems in the corporate world by means of external regulation.
Schools of education can surely be improved; too many teachers complain about the ones they attended to think otherwise. I attended one awful teacher education program, and one great one, and I know the difference. The horrible one relied on droning lectures and multiple choice tests, and the outstanding one required extensive written work in relation to challenging texts and problems through which we synthesized theory and research into the sorts of teaching ideas that produce rich and complex learning that cannot be simplistically assessed.
From what I can see, schools of economics could use some work as well, given that they appear to condone instruction and assessment remarkably like that of the bad teacher education program I attended. At least education faculty don’t have the temerity to think that they can fix either university economics departments or Wall Street with simplistic, untested, uninformed solutions in relation to problems about which they have little knowledge or experience. Physician: Heal thyself, or at least stick to healing illnesses about which you have at minimum a vague understanding.
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