Michael Zwaagstra: Teacher Education Courses Are Basically Useless

Michael Zwaagstra: Teacher Education Courses Are Basically Useless
Students attend a graduation ceremony in this undated file photo. (Chris Ison/PA Media)
Michael Zwaagstra

Summer’s over and the kids are back to school. As a teacher, one thing I’ve learned from my years in the classroom is that my education courses were mostly useless.

I graduated with my Bachelor of Education degree more than 25 years ago. While there were tidbits of useful information (particularly in a course where we looked at education and the law), most education courses did little to prepare me for the realities of classroom teaching. For example, they taught me next to nothing about classroom management or about how to design valid and reliable tests, two areas where teachers must be competent.

That’s because education courses are usually taught by professors with an ideology that runs counter to what actually helps students learn. Students benefit greatly from content-rich instruction taught by a teacher who’s clearly in charge of the classroom, and this is the exact opposite of what gets pushed in education courses. Many other teachers have also told me that their education courses were worse than useless.

Fortunately, there was one positive component of my Bachelor of Education program—my teaching practicum. During my practicum, I worked in a school and had the opportunity to be mentored by a couple of excellent teachers. Interestingly, these teachers told me to forget about what I was being taught in my education courses and focus instead on what works. Not surprisingly, I followed their advice and improved my teaching proficiency because of it.

Graduate degrees in education are just as useless as undergraduate degrees. One might argue that these degrees must have some value since many teachers choose to complete a Master of Education degree while working as a teacher. But the reason they do this is quite simple—completing extra university courses increases their salaries. As far as teacher salary grids are concerned, it doesn’t matter whether a degree makes a teacher more effective in the classroom.
Interestingly, the uselessness of education degrees has been an open secret for decades. In 1933, Lawrence Lowell, former president of Harvard University, described his own institution’s education school as “a kitten that ought to be drowned.” More recently, Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia Teachers College, authored a scathing report about the status of teacher education in North America. He concluded that the teacher education curriculum was a “confusing patchwork.”

This raises the question—why has the Bachelor of Education degree become the prerequisite for a teaching certificate? If a classroom practicum has significant value while education courses have little value, it makes sense to create an alternative certification process that focuses on the former rather than the latter.

Critics of this proposal argue that being a teacher involves much more than discipline-specific knowledge and that it’s essential for prospective teachers to learn proper pedagogy (how to teach). They argue this only happens in a Bachelor of Education program.

However, while learning how to teach is obviously important, this doesn’t happen in most education courses. It’s far more likely that teachers will gain insight by observing expert teachers in real classrooms and receiving specific feedback from them. It should be possible to acquire this practical experience without having to take two years of worthless education courses.

Another argument is that removing the Bachelor of Education requirement would lower the status of the teaching profession and make it harder to recruit quality teachers. However, what really lowers the status of the teaching profession is a mandatory Bachelor of Education degree, which is widely derided by classroom teachers, the very people who hold that degree. Obviously, teachers must receive practical teaching training prior to entering the classroom. But this can be done outside of an education school.

Finally, consider the potential benefits of bringing in genuine experts into the classroom. An engineer teaching computer science, an artist teaching art, and a musician teaching music are just a few examples of the type of expertise available to schools. It’s unnecessary to make these types of experts earn a Bachelor of Education degree before setting foot in a classroom.

We need excellent teachers, whether they have a Bachelor of Education degree or not. Let’s focus on what works best for students, not on protecting the jobs of education professors.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute. He is the author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”
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