Scholar: Train Teachers in Real Subjects, Not Education Philosophies

Annie Holmquist | May 9, 2017

It’s often said that a high-quality teacher is the biggest factor in making a student successful. As a recent study shows, such is the case even when students have already reached college and adulthood.

Writing in a recent edition of EducationNext, Brian Jacob, Kevin Stange, and Pieter De Vlieger examine the impact of high quality teachers on students in college math courses. The chart below shows that students who had a high quality math instructor were able to boost their grades in Math I by 0.30 standard deviations and their grades in Math II by 0.20 standard deviations.

What does that mean in plain English? According to the researchers, such standard deviations are “on the order of moving from a ‘B’ to a ‘B+.’” This improvement in turn boosts the chances of students moving on to higher math courses in later semesters.

Impact of Teacher Quality on Test Scores

As the researchers make clear, high quality teachers not only make a dramatic difference for students at the college level, but at the elementary and high school levels as well. If such is true, then one would think that the best way to boost student achievement is to place men and women in the nation’s classrooms who truly knew their craft: math teachers who are trained extensively in numbers and know algebraic formulas like the back of their hand; English teachers who are masters of the written word and know how to craft a well-written paragraph; history teachers to whom the past is alive, and far more thrilling than dates in a fat textbook.

It's certainly true that teachers like these exist; unfortunately, these teachers are few and far between – and through no fault of their own. According to the late American scholar and University of Chicago professor Richard Weaver, that fault lies with the schools which are training today’s teachers. Instead of training them to be experts in their discipline, they are simply experts in education methods:

“Increasingly over the past fifty years we have turned our lower and secondary education over to professional educators. These have not been men chiefly educated in the artistic and scientific disciplines; they have been men educated in ‘education.’ At first hearing that might sound like a good thing – like one of those intensive specializations which have had such impact upon the modern world. But inquiry and experience have proved two things to the contrary. One, there is no such thing as a science of education. Education is an art, which the great teachers and even the good teachers largely teach themselves. Of course, in the actual administration of a classroom there are better and worse ways of doing things, yet they hardly add up to a science, and even successful principles will vary according to the individualities of teachers. If you want the proof of this charge, look into the curricula of most of our teachers colleges. They are of an unbelievable thinness. What occurred was that our future teachers got trained not in what they were going to teach, but in how they should teach it, and that, I repeat, is a very limited curriculum. So far did this tendency carry that many of these teachers became indifferent to intellectual pursuits – mere acolytes of the ritual of educationalism. The result has been ‘educational wastelands’….”

If we are going to see improvement in our nation’s schools, do we need to rethink our approach to educating teachers first? Would they be better equipped to train the next generation if they spent less time learning educational philosophies and more time perfecting their knowledge of the 3Rs?

Image Credit: Library of Congress, Public Domain