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The Politicization of Teacher Education

(The following remarks were delivered by Candace de Russy, a trustee of the State University of New York, at a panel discussion titled “Political Bias in Education Schools.” The event was sponsored by the New York Association of Scholars in New York City on May 15, 2005.)

The thoroughly politicized state of teacher education should be of grave concern to us all. Alluding to James Loewen’s book, Lies My Teacher Taught Me, education critic Sheldon Stern wrote of the danger which this poses to our society: “…[T]ruth and democratic institutions [will not] flourish if young people swallow the distortions and half-truths promoted by leftist ideologues like Loewen, who dominate the social studies establishment in our schools, the faculty in our graduate schools of education, and the history and ‘studies’ departments in our colleges and universities. Young Americans are being consciously taught to hate and be ashamed of their nation’s history and to believe that America is a uniquely evil and oppressive society.” Such indoctrination, Stern warns, is all the more “destructive” at this time of War on Terror.

Teacher colleges have long been scathingly criticized, as noted by Charles J. Sykes’s in Dumbing Down Our Kids. Critics from the 1960s onward – such as James Koerner, James Conant and Charles Silberman – characterized education curricula as “puerile, repetitious, dull,” …”stultifyingly…trivial,”…intellectually barren and professionally useless.”

But one of the first to speak out against political bias in these programs was Rita Kramer. In her 1991 study Ed School Follies, she criticized their mindless adoption of multiculturalism. This ideology, she wrote, is part of a broader movement to replace “the measurable learning of real knowledge” with “politics….” Expanding on Ms. Kramer’s point, Sykes called this fixation on racial, ethnic, and gender identities “a heavy club wielded against traditional curricula, reading lists, ability tracking, grades, standardized tests, discipline policies, and attempts to raise academic standards (which can be denounced as ethnocentric if they result in lesser rewards for any racial group).”

The virulence of classroom politics – its potential to instill resentment, divide society, and destroy self-reliance – is apparent in texts used to educate teachers in multiculturalism. One text cited in a recent study by the Pacific Research Institute instructs: “We cannot afford to become so bogged down in grammar and spelling that we forget the whole story.” This story, the text states, is one of “racism, sexism, and the greed of money and human labor that disguises itself as ‘globalization.’”

This is the twisted mindset so pervasive in today’s teacher colleges, which mold those who in turn mold our children and children’s children. In Sykes’s dire phrase: “Into their hands we commend our future.”

Were it not for entrenched special interest politics, the problem of teacher colleges could be solved by abolishing them. Sound teacher preparation could easily, and much more cost-effectively, be provided within traditional departments. Absent such radical restructuring, greater school choice (unlimited charter schools and school vouchers) would force those who prepare our teachers to compete and improve.

But a revolution of this sort is unfortunately glacially slow in coming.

Other solutions include calling upon governing boards to reform teacher colleges. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has launched an initiative named Trustees for Better Teachers (TBT), which I have the honor of chairing. In Teachers Who Can: How Informed Trustees Can Ensure Teacher Quality, a TBT publication by Michael Poliakoff, the group urges trustees to inquire whether textbooks used in these programs are “fair, balanced, and factual,” to obtain the data needed to assess these programs, to ensure future teachers know the subjects they will teach, to interpret state teacher certification exam results with the appropriate skepticism, to combat grade inflation, to guard against the limitations of accrediting agencies, and to distinguish “best practices from malpractice in education methods courses.”

Trustees are of course obliged and empowered by law to ensure the integrity of all curricula, including that of teacher colleges, but all too typically they elect not to do so. A primary cause of this failure is the fear of even appearing to tell professors what they can or cannot teach, of intruding upon faculty prerogatives. At the same time, however, the professoriate is largely failing to play by its own historic rules, to uphold its end of its compact with the public: While basking in the privilege of self-governance, it forsakes the public trust.

What did the profession’s own representative organization have to say on this subject? In its 1915 “Declaration of Principles” (among many other pronouncements) the AAUP warned that if the professoriate “should prove itself unwilling…to prevent the freedom which it claims…from being used…for uncritical and intemperate partisanship…it is certain that the task will be performed by others.”

But in reality governing boards shrink from confronting partisanship and ideology on campuses. Take, for example, a recent meeting of the Academic Standards Committee of the State University of New York Board of Trustees, where I repeated my essential objection to SUNY’s touted reform of its 16 teacher colleges (which, I might add, is said to educate more teachers than any other institution in the world). I reiterated that such initiatives are meaningless unless they are grounded in an honest and through assessment of the curricula (disciplinary and pedagogical) used in these programs. System Provost Peter Salins’s response to this, unchallenged by any other trustee, was: “It is not our role to critique existing programs.”

“It is not our role….” Therein why failed programs such as teacher education endure and endure. Neither faculty nor administrators nor boards are in fact in charge. No one is ensuring high curricular and other academic standards. For this reason the governance of the academy today has rightly been labeled “organized anarchy.”

Until such accountability is instituted, our future will remain in the hands of ideologues hostile to our best traditions, and this nation will remain at risk.

Candace de Russy, Ph.D., a trustee of the State University of New York, writes on educational and cultural issues.

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