Education degrees in the limelight

Degrees in education have never had the same cachet as those in other fields because they lack the same intellectual rigor.  (“Dr. Jill Biden and the problem with education degrees,” New York Daily News, Dec. 15). The reason is that the demand for teachers to fill public school classrooms has meant standards could not be raised too high. 

Whether higher salaries would change that is questionable because teaching is becoming increasingly more stressful.  When I taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the job was far different than now.  Yet even then, burnout was common. Since then, so-called combat pay has not significantly increased the number of college graduates who volunteer to teach in troubled schools.

I seriously question whether quality and quantity can exist simultaneously.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

4 Replies to “Education degrees in the limelight”

  1. Society as a whole believes that K-12 teaching — unlike law, medicine, accounting, and some other fields — does not require either high intelligence, high technical knowledge (how to teach), or even high substantive knowledge (of the subject taught). Society believes that good teachers do have a lot of “grit” or determination and that great teachers have some sort of natural flare for connecting with students. However, society believes — probably correctly — that neither grit nor natural flare can be obtained via bachelors and advanced degrees in education.

    It follows from these beliefs that society pays teachers a relatively low salary and places relatively low value/status on education degrees. And, it follows from the relatively low salary that the brightest and most ambitious college students have less incentive to get teaching degrees as opposed to other professional degrees.

    IMO, good or great teaching does require high intelligence, high technical knowledge, and grit or determination. Substantive knowledge, not as much — probably. However, my impression is that most college course work leading to an ed degree (including graduate degrees) does a pretty poor job of teaching the technical knowledge required to be a good or great teacher — at least, that’s what several intelligent ed school grads say in their memoirs.

    Drawing from my analogous experience coaching youth soccer teams (local, not travel or competitive) for K-8 grades — although I was intelligent, had decent substantive knowledge, and tried pretty hard, I was a mediocre coach the first few seasons. Over time, I learned via trial-and-error as well as retrospective analysis what practice techniques would be effective and what would be ineffective. Much of this was not obvious (at least not to an ex-high-school soccer player, although much of it might have been obvious to a good elementary school teacher); doing in practice with K-8 kids what a high school or college soccer coach would be doing in practice was largely a waste of the K-8 kids’ practice time. By perhaps my sixth season coaching, my technical coaching knowledge had improved a lot. By my 15th season coaching, it had improved still further.

    My sense is that being a good or great K-12 teacher requires a lot of the kind of technical knowledge that I had to work out for myself re K-8 soccer coaching, but obviously with many more variables involved. And, I doubt that ed schools do a very good job of teaching this technical knowledge (or of monitoring the ed students as they try implementing the technical knowledge that they learn in the college classroom).


  2. Labor Lawyer: Great teachers are naturals who possess not only subject matter expertise but the ability to connect with their students. They are few in numbers and ed schools cannot create them. What the schools can do, however, is to help prepare their students for the realities of the classroom. But because of the sheer number of teachers needed, standards are quite minimal.


    1. I’m not sure re “great teachers are naturals”. Re my soccer coaching analogy, I ended up being, if not a “great” coach, then certainly a very good coach — more effective in terms of won/lost as well as parent and player satisfaction than most of the other coaches in the leagues. Yet, I was a mediocre coach the first few seasons. The difference was my identifying and using better coaching techniques over the years. If someone had taught me these better coaching techniques at the start of Year 1, I could have been a much better coach for those first several years. My sense is that, just as the youth soccer leagues in my area gave me a sack of soccer balls and a roster of players with zero instruction re hands-on coaching techniques, a lot of first-year teachers start out with very little knowledge re the most effective hands-on teaching techniques (although their ed schools may have given them a lot of theoretical stuff). In other words, even if “great” teachers are naturals, it is possible to make an ordinary teacher into a “very good” teacher via identification and instruction re effective hands-on teaching techniques.


  3. Labor Lawyer: There’s no question that constant practice, coupled with immediate feedback, can improve almost all skills, including teaching. But how many people can be Escalante or McCourt? Those two are what I call naturals. The same holds true in, say, music. Constant practice and immediate feedback will improve musical performance. But Mozart and Mendelssohn were naturals.


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