Low Expectations

Education Next Issue Cover

An insider’s view of ed schools

By Julia Harvey

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Winter 2012 / Vol. 12, No. 1

I could tell from the start that my experience at a highly ranked education school would be vastly different from my undergraduate experience as a foreign-language major at an Ivy League university. I took four classes the first semester, all of which were taught by adjuncts, only one of whom seemed to have a firm grasp on how to conduct a graduate-level course.

My classmates complained that her class was too hard.

One of my other instructors spent class sessions badly summarizing the readings, instigating awkward and often one-sided class discussions, or trying to explain the homework assignments and projects she thought up. When she assigned one of her own articles for us to read, it became clear that despite having completed a doctorate at our university, she could not write a coherent academic article.

Desperate for a more challenging academic experience, I increased my course load for the second semester and handpicked my instructors. I actually enjoyed most of my classes that semester, but it was at this point that I began to deeply question the university’s approach to preparing future teachers.

It baffled me, for example, that I could get a master’s degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) after having completed only one rudimentary course in linguistics and one in English grammar. Almost all of my classmates struggled greatly in these two courses, leading me to wonder whether perhaps the admission requirements might also need refining. A class in adolescent development was useful, but the program offered no course in child development, despite the fact that my certification would be for grades K–12. It seemed that they were skimming over the important topics while bogging me down with courses in “theory and practice,” which did little to make me feel prepared to begin teaching on my own.

The focus of the third and fourth semesters was student teaching. My first placement was in high-school foreign language, for which I was also receiving certification. I was fortunate to work with a relatively strong supervising teacher; the infuriating aspect of this first placement was how I was evaluated. A supervisor from the university observed me during three lessons over the course of the semester. After each observation, she completed a write-up and made a few minimally helpful suggestions. During the final observation, she leaned over to my supervising teacher and casually asked, “So, what grade would you give her?” No criteria for evaluation, no request for a report on what I needed to work on. Fortunately, I did receive some valuable feedback from my supervising teacher that semester; I cannot say the same about my English as a Second Language student-teaching placement the following semester.

The final task I was asked to complete for the program was an “individualized project,” which sounded to me like a dumbed-down version of a thesis or capstone project. I have to confess that I took the easy way out. I knew I wasn’t going to get the kind of academic support I would need to complete an actual thesis, so I settled for designing a unit based on what I was already working on with my ESL students. After meeting with the professor a few times and receiving some vague suggestions, I handed in a project that earned me the last of a full transcript of easy As, with a friendly note on the cover and not a single comment or suggestion for how the unit could have been improved.

After observing and teaching in a variety of classroom settings over the course of my graduate studies, I have concluded that good teaching depends on three things: mastery of the subject, a keen understanding of how children learn, and an ability to maintain a disciplined yet positive learning environment. It is hard for me to express how disheartening it is to have spent two years and more than $80,000 in student loans on a program that did justice to none of those objectives.

The author earned a masters degree in education at a private university in the Northeast. Julia Harvey is a pseudonym.

Comment on this article
  • Eric says:

    While I do not attend an Ivy league university, I share some of your disappointments with my educational program and colleagues. The simple truth is that there are far too many variables in effective teaching to teach it well. Learning how to teach is no different than learning anything else. We have to accept the fact that lessons will blow up in our face and at times we will lose control of the classroom. Constant and systematic self reflection is the only way to truly become a better educator.

  • Joanne says:

    Your experience was unfortunate, and your expectations were reasonable and obviously not met. Teaching is indeed highly complex and multiple knowledge bases are required to be used in order to teach well.

    Unfortunately, experiences like yours are too often applied to all teacher education programs. Programs vary widely in quality. Any efforts to improve teacher education must distinguish between effective and ineffective programs, and this cannot even be done at the level of the university–most large universities have discipline-specific programs so that prospective teachers have content-specific methods coursework and supervisors who know both pedagogy and content. Thus, even within a single university, programs can vary widely in quality. Teacher education students are advised to talk to graduates and find out where the well-prepared teachers are being prepared.

    The subtitle of this article is misleading: this is an insider’s view of one ed school, and cannot be generalized to all others.

  • ggw says:

    Name names….

  • Ken says:

    The reason that the subtitle was used is because of the mass of evidence that has been previously disclosed regarding the education and training of K-12 teachers in Ed Schools. The woman’s story is believable. As to the request to “name names,” I don’t see how that would add to the argument. But if you’re looking for sustaining evidence read contributions by Ric Hess and Kate Walsh in this journal.

    I went to a college that prided itself on turning out qualified teachers for public schools. In my senior year I searched for electives in a scramble to graduate. Children’s Literature was open, I was the only English Major in the class of mostly teacher wannabes. They didn’t even know how to write a paper — the professor’s judgement, not mine — and Kiddy Lit became my easiest while in many ways most satisfying course, and one of my few A’s in college. We used to say that you could always tell when you were among Ed Majors: They wanted to rearrange the chairs.

    “Julia Harvey” would be well advised to find a mentor, maybe one of the teachers in high school that inspired her to choose teaching in the first place. Ask that person what they would have done differently and where they would have wanted to work. Then, go get that job.

  • George says:

    When I was in college many years ago the saying was that if you couldn’t make it in the science or engineering school, you transferred to the business school. If you weren’t bright enough to pass there, you went to the ed school. So nothing in this article surprises me.

    You people in the ed school establishment should be ashamed of yourselves.

  • Jebodiah Grachus says:

    I had a similar experience at a teacher ed. program in upstate NY. Many of these schools seem to crank-out droves of newly-minted teachers with little prospect for a job afterward, and with tens of thousands in debt. Afterall, they are businesess primarily concerned with maximizing profit. I would not advise anyone go into teaching at this time. Then again, “Julia Harvey” strikes me as very condescending. She might not be happy anywhere.

  • Matt says:

    Keep your chin up Julia. You are right about everything but in fairness, lots of jobs require training programs that are no good. Plenty of lawyers can tell you that. And teaching is a wonderful and all-consuming profession once you get passed the useless training.

  • T. H. Edwards says:

    Ed classes were the easiest and most useless I ever took. Teaching advanced writing at a SUNY ed school was very enlightening. Most of my students were barely literate. Of course, no GRE was required to enter the grad program. If they would have required them, they’d have to make the required scores so low that they’d be the laughing stock of the college (which they already were.)

  • J.S. Morales says:

    I definitely understand your pain. My own teacher education program was similarly watered down and largely pointless. It is amazing that colleges, where we are supposed to be challenged, have really just become extensions of high school. Easy courses, lackluster students whining, and yet the price keeps going up, up, up. Furthermore, many professors don’t even welcome spirited debate but rather just stick to their (usually liberal) talking points. There is a lot that needs to be done to fix higher ed, starting with having some actual standards. To anyone considering college, try to avoid loans as much as possible, and make sure you are getting a degree in something you want and that will help you get a job. Don’t waste $50,000 getting a useless degree and end up working at your local Wal-Mart.

  • Angie Schreiber says:

    Why not try a really good education institution like Emporia State University. It is nationally ranked by the Department of Education as preparing some of the best teachers in the United States. Go to their web site and view the video on ESU’s teaching program. You spend hours in classrooms and get a lot of mentoring and good solid educational background information. I know I have a teaching degree from there and still live in Emporia, KS.

  • Sheila Nudd says:

    You are a adult. You are paying for a service. If they are not providing the service, demand a refund and find another provider. You would do that with a house painter or car mechanic. Be responsible for yourself.

  • Bruce Deitrick Price says:

    There has been rumbling for many decades that the Education Establishment does not want the smartest students and does not prepare those that show up in a demanding way. (Ed School Follies, a book from 1991, made all these points. It was not the first.) In other words, the Education Establishment is cynically recruiting and training people to continue an agenda that is generally called social engineering or, more rudely, dumbing down.

    George has it right: “You people in the ed school establishment should be ashamed of yourselves.”

    Bruce Deitrick Price

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