Op-Ed

Lesson Plan for Teachers

Diane Ravitch

Here is a bold policy prescription to improve the quality of teaching: Require future high school teachers to have an academic major in the subject they intend to teach. Thirty states claim to do it now, though there are plenty of loopholes. Future teachers of history should major in history, and future teachers of science should major in science. Those who plan to teach the nation’s children should themselves be well educated.

This may not sound controversial, but in fact it is too controversial for Congress. When Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) proposed recently that states and institutions receiving federal funds should adopt a policy of this kind, his colleagues on both sides of the political divide objected. The Republicans, not surprisingly, did not like the idea that the federal government should tell states how to prepare future teachers; much to everyone’s surprise, Democratic senators—led by Sen. Ted Kennedy—wondered if it was altogether fitting for the federal government to tell states how to improve the quality of future teachers.

Bingaman, with co-sponsors Thad Cochran (R-Miss), Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), is trying to amend the Higher Education Act, and he is on the right track. Presently, there are two great scandals in teaching. The first is that huge numbers of teachers are teaching subjects in which they have neither a college major nor a minor. The U.S. Department of Education calls them “out of field” teachers. Fully 39.5 percent of those whose main teaching assignment is science have neither a major nor minor in science; 34 percent of mathematics teachers are “out of field,” as are 25 percent of English teachers and 55 percent of history teachers. The proportions of “out of field” teachers approach 50 percent in inner-city schools. Despite these numbers, nearly all public school teachers are “certified,” even when they are teaching a subject in which they have neither a college major nor minor nor graduate degree.

The second great scandal in the teaching profession is the huge proportion of teachers who majored in the study of education as undergraduates instead of any academic field. Currently, a majority of the nation’s teachers have their undergraduate major in education. Almost three-quarters of elementary school teachers majored in education, as did about one-third of the nation’s high school teachers. This disregard for academic subject matter may help to explain why American students performed so poorly—besting only Cyprus and South Africa—in the latest international assessment of mathematics and science.

What is best for students? According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, student achievement is highest when teachers have an academic major plus appropriate professional courses and certification. This holds true, says the commission, no matter how poor the students, what their ethnicity or whether English is their second language. It makes sense: Students know when their teachers love their subject, and they catch the enthusiasm when they do.

To be sure, the study of education has value. Future teachers need to learn about good teaching methods from experienced teachers, to understand what makes students tick and to know how to deal with problems that arise in the classroom. They won’t learn that by studying science, history or algebra. But if they don’t study subject matter, what will they teach their students?

An undergraduate major in education makes little sense. What is the point of learning how to teach, if you don’t know what to teach? Imagine a law school where future lawyers study how to try cases, how to understand the psyches of their clients and how to manage a law firm, but never study the law; or a medical school where future doctors study psychology and the philosophy of medicine but never learn how to cure any patients.

Even those members of Congress who agree that all teachers should be well-educated prefer to leave it to the states to decide whether their future teachers should get an academic major in college. At a time when the American public agrees that improving education is their highest priority, it is curious to see both parties embrace laissez-faire policies. Republicans have shown themselves willing to tell states what to do on subjects such as abortion and welfare reform, while Democrats always have been ready to set standards for participation in every other federal program.

Of course, states should chart their own course. But when they draw on the $2 billion in federal funds that support teacher preparation programs, they should expect that those dollars will be used to upgrade the quality of future teachers. On a matter that is so critical for improving education, why the sudden conversion to states’ rights?

The writer, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, was an assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration.