• U.S.

Teachers: Conant v. the Establishment

2 minute read

Ever since his bestselling The Education of American Teachers appeared last fall, James B. Conant has been under heavy fire from teachers’ groups — and with good reason. The main target of Conant’s book is the “bankrupt” system of teacher certification by which states dictate what courses a potential teacher must take in college to get a public-school license. The result, he charged, is that colleges are forced to teach insipid “Mickey Mouse” courses that turn out uneducated teachers. Conant’s solution: abolish the state rules, free colleges to upgrade teacher training, make classroom performance the test of certification.

On the contrary, say Conant’s critics, colleges are not “responsible” enough to uphold high standards on their own.

Not surprisingly, this is the dominant line of the “education establishment,” as Conant calls the potent coalition of state education officials and the National Education Association that controls teachertraining by the weapon of accreditation. The hope of N.E.A.’s own National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education is that teaching licenses will go only to the graduates of colleges it “approves.” N.C.A.T.E. already approves 409 colleges, says it influences the training of 75% of the nation’s new teachers.

Last week in Chicago, Harvard’s longtime former president (1933-53) answered his critics for the first time. At a meeting of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, Conant declared that colleges should refuse even to receive N.C.A.T.E. accrediting teams. Reason: the teams are largely composed of “special interest” education professors who often only cursorily inspect a campus, seeing what they want to see. Conant strongly urged a new, state-supervised system that would leave it to colleges to decide whether a teacher knows his subject, and let master school teachers judge whether he can teach it well.

“The payoff in any teacher education program,” said Conant succinctly, “is in the classrooms of local school districts.”

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