For More Educational Freedom, I'll Give Up (Figurative) Ed School Explosions

Explosions are cool effects to watch in the world of make-believe — action movies and video games, though my parents pretty tightly limit my exposure even to those. That may be in part because mom and dad want to send the message that blowing things up in real life is generally a bad idea with lots of potentially bad consequences. Somebody could get hurt.

So it’s probably not surprising that I experienced a curious reaction to Rick Hess’s latest blog piece, titled “A Better Path than ‘Blowing Up’ Schools of Education.” By schools of education, of course we’re talking about the colleges that train K-12 classroom teachers and other educators.

Let me start off by saying that among those who want to see parents more empowered and students have access to more great teachers, education schools remain perhaps the least talked about but widely recognized institution that stands as an obstacle to reform. As Hess acknowledges, sheer numbers dictate their influence:

In simple numerical terms, the competing voices at think tanks and in academic departments are dwarfed by the tens of thousands of faculty in teacher-preparation programs at state colleges of education. Not coincidentally, the voices most inclined to challenge the received wisdom of the ed school professoriate are all found in economics departments, policy schools, or think tanks.

The National Council on Teacher Quality undertook the monstrous task of opening up the black box of education schools and evaluating how well they’re preparing teachers for the important job that lies ahead. While certainly there are bright spots out there, the overall picture is troubling.

Out of 1,668 elementary and secondary education prep programs, NCTQ only identified 107 as “Top Ranked.” They must be using different criteria than commonly accepted in the field, as the top-flight list included very few of the recognized “elite” institutions. But if you could take just one fact from their analysis that has me concerned, it would be this:

We are disheartened that the teacher education field continues to disregard scientifically based methods of reading instruction: coursework in just 17 percent of programs equips their elementary and special education teachers to use all five fundamental components of reading instruction, helping to explain why such a large proportion of American school children (30 percent) never learn to read beyond a basic level.

NCTQ’s authors were referring to the results on the gold-standard NAEP reading test. We certainly can do better. How do we dramatically increase the number of education schools that thoroughly and properly teach scientifically based reading instruction, and train more quality educators in general?

One very important way is for more of the schools and districts that will end up hiring these students to send important signals that show a demand for more quality educators with key skills and in key fields. Hence, Dougco’s market-based pay program and Falcon 49’s Teacher Career Track innovation (is that still a thing?).

Hess meanwhile shares three key ideas to help fix education schools without following the justifiably frustrated reaction to just “blow them up.” You have to read his article to see what he means, but they’re described as the following:

  • The Federalist Society model
  • The “law and economics” model
  • The George Mason model

There’s certainly potential in pushing some of these approaches on the supply side, while also addressing the problem on the demand side. But if some have more merit than others, I at least think Hess is correct that the “goal shouldn’t be to silence other voices, but to break the monopoly and insist on a fair competition of ideas.”

It’s one more key part of the effort to lead us to greater educational freedom and excellence. If we’re doing that, I can live without more explosions.