How Dumb Do We Want Prospective Teachers To Be?

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Not much smarter than the dumbest students they will teach, it seems. But the answer really depends on the “research” we read. If this National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) publication is to be accorded the status of research, we may accept one of its many internal (and misleading) conclusions:  “… there is mixed evidence on the number or type of courses a teacher takes and his or her performance in the classroom” (page 75).

Its authors are suggesting that we really don’t know if teaching ability depends on the kinds of courses and how many of them a teacher takes, so they have no clear advice to give us on whether we would have better elementary school teachers if they took academic coursework in the subjects they taught. 

Actually, their assertion is poorly stated, and the evidence isn’t mixed. What is mixed are the kinds of studies that were combined for an analysis that addresses the wrong question. Evidence is mixed if all studies of K-12 teachers’ academic background are put into one basket to analyze, whether the teachers taught elementary or high school, and if one talks about the relationship of background courses to teaching skills, not to student achievement.

It has long been obvious that one can’t teach what one doesn’t know. That is why teacher licensing began many decades ago as an effort to ensure that prospective teachers did know the subjects they were going to be legally licensed to teach. Education schools quickly objected that licensure test scores weren’t related to teaching ability. Quite right. They didn’t correlate because licensure tests of subject knowledge weren’t designed to predict teaching skill. They came into being to assess whether the test-taker had the subject-area knowledge needed for teaching the range of students at the grade levels allowed by the license. (See Ann Jarvella Wilson’s paper obtainable at ED 262 049, or chapter 4 in Sandra Stotsky’s An Empty Curriculum obtainable through for the history of teacher licensure tests.)

That didn’t stop education school faculty from criticizing teacher licensure tests of subject-area knowledge on spurious grounds. Unfortunately, their irrelevant criticism did change the tests; they were watered down in content demand, and came to highlight teaching approaches, especially at the elementary level. However, the public was simply told that licensure tests didn’t predict teachers’ teaching skills and were thus useless. The public wasn’t told that these tests had a different purpose — and that one does not use a knowledge test to predict teaching skill (even pedagogical subject knowledge), especially since there was and is no consensus on what good teaching skills look like. The public wasn’t told that real tests of subject knowledge could be useful for the purpose for which they were constructed, and that the more that prospective teachers know about a subject, the more students would learn in that subject.

But if one looks only at studies of the relationship between the college math and science courses that high school mathematics and science teachers have taken and their students’ academic performance (not teachers’ skills), there is a correlation according to the text on page 13 in a 2008 report on teacher education research.

And it turns out that when one looks only at studies of those who teach math in kindergarten through eighth grade, there is little or no relationship between the courses teachers take and how they students do in the courses teachers teach. Why? We don’t know, because education researchers haven’t tried to find out the math content of the math or math-methods courses future math teachers in K-8 were required to take or what the qualifications of their education professors were for the math or science methods courses they were required to take in teacher preparation programs. We don’t know what high school math or science courses K-8 teachers took when they were in high school themselves. Or what grades they got. We don’t know if they took few or any courses in math or science in college. Sometimes they took special college math and science courses designed for future teachers (like “Science for Poets”) that had so little content that future nurses and engineers were not allowed to take them for credit.

But the authors of a study called “No Guarantees:  Is it Possible to Ensure Teachers Are Ready on Day One?”, Chad Aldeman and Ashley Mitchel, weren’t interested in the fact that students learn more from a subject-knowledgeable teacher. (That is, if one if one looks at studies of teachers who had to take math or science courses to get licensed — meaning those who teach grades 9 through 12). It seems they had a different agenda for their report, issued in February 2016 by Bellwether Education Partners. The organization was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop Common Core-aligned test items — to be used in a variety of Common Core-aligned tests for, it seems, teachers as well as students. The agenda is explicit in the final section:  “… If the Common Core-aligned assessments uncover consistent variations among preparation programs, it will be easier to know how to improve teacher preparation pathways … (page 27).”

The authors apparently seek to promote use of Common Core-aligned test items to tell us that coursework in “pedagogical content knowledge” is needed to prepare future teachers, not to note that research already indicates the benefit of mathematics or science coursework for those who teach mathematics or science in grades 9-12 and of requiring mathematics coursework for those who will be licensed to teach it in a self-contained elementary classroom. However, readers must ask if there is any need to take a Common Core-aligned test to find out what common sense alone has told intelligent educators for centuries. Nothing replaces actual coursework in “content knowledge,” in high school or college.

Otherwise, why bother going to college? Indeed, why should we require prospective teachers for K-6 to get a college degree? Many countries don’t. (But they do expect prospective primary grade teachers to have taken strong academic courses in high school.) Based on the studies they have looked at, Aldeman and Mitchel also recommend (on page 8) that since (as they misleadingly conclude after posing the wrong question) licensure has no relationship to teaching ability, we should let unlicensed people teach and be evaluated by their local school district on whether they should get a license. In other words:  No licensure tests at all to determine whether prospective teachers know enough mathematics to teach it at all. And to determine the award of a teaching license, criteria would, of course, include success in teaching the Common Core-aligned math tests that they had passed. This is a circular system now being promoted for evaluating reading comprehension itself.

As an Education Week reporter has already noted, “Deep reading comprehension refers to the process required to succeed at tasks defined by the Common Core State Literacy Standards, as well as to achieve proficiency on the more challenging reading tasks in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) framework.” The reporter took this circular definition directly from the “research” study she looked at. It in turn was promoting something called Global Integrated Scenario-based Assessments (GISA), computer-based assessments developed by Educational Testing Service (ETS) that use scenarios, technology, and reading strategies to motivate students. GISA is described by the reporter as “a theoretically based measure designed to reflect an updated understanding of the construct of reading comprehension.” Apparently, the definition of reading comprehension has been “updated” to mean the results of a test claiming to assess it.  Neat!

That may be why the National Center on Education and the Economy report on the training of elementary school teachers (mentioned above) can say towards the end, on page 74: “… content courses should be aligned to the level of the curriculum being taught.”  So, how much will a prospective primary grade school teacher ever learn, in a Common Core-dominated educational future?


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.  This essay is a slightly revised version of the essay published in Truth in American Education at