Sunday, January 13, 2008

Education Schools: Help or Hindrance?

It is not an exaggeration to say that I was thrilled, yes thrilled, to read George K. Cunningham’s Education Schools: Helping or Hindering Potential Teachers? I had just about given up hope that anyone in the ivory towers of the schools of education would ever get it. Then, as if sent down on rays of light through silvery clouds, The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy has the courage to rock the establishment boat .*

“Evidence indicates that the traditional or teacher-centered approaches are more effective in helping students achieve academic goals than the learner-centered or “progressive” approaches.”
-- George K. Cunningham

Wow, he actually said it. The emperor isn't wearing any clothes. Amazingly, it was even printed and disseminated to the masses (well, it's available to the masses for free anyway). Cunningham’s position goes against everything school adminsitrators, most newly minted teachers, and the school of education professors are preaching these days.

If you are a parent, you should read it. If you are an educator, you should read it. If you are an education school student, please, please read it. Challenge the establishment, question authority, and dare to take the road less traveled. Come on, be a rebel and turn in an ed school research project about Project Follow Through, Direct Instruction, or precision teaching! (Just think of it as retro-chic.)

While Cunningham is looking specifically at the University of North Carolina, it is clear that education schools across the nation are entrenched in the same progressive/constructivist rhetoric he frowns upon. As a result, this rhetoric rules the day in most public school classrooms and our children are paying dearly for it.

“This advocacy of rhetoric as opposed to practical learning leads education students into realms far afield from normal education as most people understand it. It leaves precious little time to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic.”

In his discussion of the “Math Wars,” Cunningham clearly understands the crux of the dilemma. He offers up the following example to support his argument:

In the reform math, getting the right answer is not as important as the processes employed. Reform math even discourages parents from teaching this algorithm to their children (Schmid 2000). Rather, the goal is to discover novel ways of solving long division problems. Students think through the problem rather than memorize a series of steps that lead to the correct answer without understanding why it works. For example, the student might discover the alternative of making 184 marks on a piece of paper and repeatedly counting off 13 of them to determine how many 13s are in 184. Precision is not mandatory, the ability to estimate is prized, and larger numbers can be divided with a calculator.

Ironically, other more awkward and time-consuming algorithms are acceptable in reform math, such as creating a series of cluster problems. To use the cluster problem method the student multiplies 13 by various numbers until the total is as close to 184 as possible and the remainder is less than 13. This is time-consuming and likely to lead to computation errors. The Everyday Mathematics Teacher’s Reference Manual 4-6 concedes that the use of this process does not lead to a better understanding of the underlying processes than the standard algorithm (Everyday Mathematics 2001).


Recognizing that there are big gaps in mathematics performance among ethnicities and socio-economic levels, reform math makes an implausible assumption. It notes that in traditional math systems, some students cannot progress to higher-level math because they cannot grasp and move beyond the fundamentals. Instead of focusing on teaching the fundamentals better, they assume that it will be easier for low-performing students to understand the more abstract higher-level math concepts than to grasp the fundamentals. There is no evidence to support that counter-intuitive idea.

Counterintuitive. Yes, that's exactly what it is.

While we may be aware of the issues with the education schools, too many dissenters seem to have thrown in the towel. There aren't enough educators speaking up and speaking out. Cunningham, in contrast, tackles this crisis head on.

In his conclusion, he offers up recommendations for improving teacher preparation that could certainly be implemented outside of North Carolina.

  1. Public schools must commit themselves to educational accountability- "improving student skills and knowledge in the vital academic areas is its foremost concern."
  2. States should write accrediting standards for education schools that "place the emphasis where it should be -- preparing teachers who are able to help students master the subjects they need to learn."
  3. Replace the PRAXIS with the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE) or custom designed alternative that promotes effective instructional methods that ensure higher academic achievement.
  4. Improve the quality of school of education professors through careful evaluation. Applicants who favor progressive/constructivist pedagogy over traditional approaches need not apply.
  5. Secondary teachers should be content area experts in what they propose to teach. Less educational theory and more content knowledge.

    "Students—our future teachers—receive too much instruction in failed student-centered theories and little (or none) in direct instruction, scientific reading principles, and other traditional approaches. Instead, they are immersed in the progressive education culture, which turns out graduates who to a substantial degree favor constructive, student-centered pedagogy and the belief that the prime goal of schooling is to solve social problems."
Amen. The goal of schooling should not be solving social problems. The goal of schooling should be achieving academic excellence in the best, most efficient manner. As a bonus, if every child receives an excellent education, we will have equipped them to rise to the challenge of social problems of their very own accord. And, isn't that the point, really?

*Cunningham is quite the revolutionary. Just check out his speech before the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Can Education Schools Be Saved?

University of North Carolina
Education Schools: Helping or Hindering Potential Teachers?

George K. Cunningham

Pope Center Series on Higher Education Policy
January 2008


Instructivist said...

Wow! A great writeup.

I also find it thrilling that he is putting the two approaches (usually referred to as philosophies) in stark relief.

Cunnigham's paper is enormously important. Consider cross-posting at KTM.

concernedCTparent said...

Thanks for the tip on the speech, "Can Education Schools Be Saved?" That's a keeper.

This paper is enormously important. I'll get a less verbose version up at KTM.

Anonymous said...

I am an adjunct Associate Professor of Mathematics at Rider University, active as a substitute teacher and mentor in high schools, and a retired professor of physics from Rutgers University. I have taken extensive notes from my experiences and given them to my protégés. Recently I collected them into a book. I suggest that your library purchase the book for the benefit of students, parents, and teachers.

I just wrote a book, "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better". This is available on, ISBN 978-1-4196-7435-8. May I suggest that you order a copy for the library? The readers will be very pleased!

The reviews are superb. Students, teachers, and professors who have looked at the book give it the highest rating.

Typical comments that I hear are things like this: "Hi, Dr. Aranoff!" said a girl, "I got a 100 on the test! I am so happy! Thank you so much!"

I also wrote a paper in Gifted Education Press Quarterly:

Here are some comments:

"We really enjoyed the latest GEPQ and especially liked the article by Sanford Aranoff. He took a very practical approach on an eyeball to eyeball level. A lot of this really needed saying. He showed a keen awareness of the trends towards anti-scientific education that are out there. We made a hard copy of this article and will send it on to the heads of the science and math departments at Loyola Academy with the intention of their distributing it to department chairs in the Jesuit Secondary Education Association."