Reforming Teacher Education: “Tinkering Around The Edges”

An earlier form of this article appears in educational Horizons, Volume 88, Number 2, Spring 2010.

Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach teachers.” —  Anonymous

edited 11/10/16 

Teacher education has long been a lowly activity, and former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan didn’t add to its status. He asserted that many, if not most, of the nation’s teacher preparation programs are second-rate. He claimed that they attract inferior students and weak faculty. And he charged that colleges and universities use them as “cash cows,” bleeding off the revenues they generate.[1]

Politics, Not Logic 

Oddly, at the same time Mr. Duncan demanded increased rigor in teacher preparation, he praised alternative quickie routes into teaching. Logic demands that if teacher education lacks rigor, it needs to be tougher. But Mr. Duncan favored bullshit over logic even though he himself said, “It’s no surprise that studies repeatedly document that the single biggest influence on student achievement is the quality of the teacher standing in the front of the classroom.[2]

Secretary Duncan claimed he favored getting to the root of the nation’s alleged educational problems. Time magazine, for instance, quoted him as saying, “It’s obvious the (educational) system’s broken. Let’s admit it’s broken, let’s admit it’s dysfunctional, and let’s do something dramatically different, and let’s do it now. But don’t just tinker around the edges. Don’t just play with it. Let’s fix the thing.”[3]The trouble is, at least when it comes to teacher education, Mr. Duncan didn’t follow his own advice. Now we’ve got Betsy Devos as Secretary of Education. So we can safely bet that rigor will not be introduced to teacher preparation. After all, she, like former Secretary Duncan, lacks any professional preparation herself. Which is proof positive that none is necessary.

Letting State Officials Off the Hook 

Critics of teacher preparation conveniently ignore the fact that state government sets, and enforces, those standards. So if programs are lousy, Duncan’s quarrel is, first and foremost, with state officials. Instead the critics ignore state government’s central role. In fact many of them even applaud when state after state embrace still feebler “alternative” routes into teaching. 

Professional Schools of Education

Actually, if the critics were truly serious about improving teacher education, they would advocate the complete abolition of undergraduate programs. Instead, they would favor professional graduate level schools of education modeled on the training required by other established professions. Right now it’s a great deal harder to learn to remedy people’s bunions, much less treat their pets, than it is to teach their children. What kind of sense does that make?

Yes, consider what is demanded of aspiring physicians, attorneys, architects, optometrists, dentists, podiatrists, veterinarians, chiropractors and CPA’s, for example. All of these occupations require selective, tough, graduate level schooling in a specialized environment. To qualify candidates first have to grow up, get a college education, pass a tough examination, and master professional training. In contrast, teacher education programs usually involve a mere undergraduate major (or minor) that must compete for the student’s attention with other undergraduate requirements and campus social life. Most teacher education programs can’t even select their own applicants. They must accept anyone the university admits who says they  want to major in education. In consequence, teacher educators have to deal with many immature, unfocused, marginally committed youngsters who aren’t developmentally ready for serious study much less being entrusted with the lives of children. By what magic is such raw material to be transformed into skilled, dedicated, professionals? 

Money Talks

Why this enormous difference between training in the true professions and teaching? Is teaching easy? Just give it a try. Is there little to learn? Not the last time I checked. Is nothing really serious at stake. I don’t think so. No, the reason these other occupations can charge a higher price for admission is because of the generous benefits that await at the end of the process.

Forgetting his secret tape recorder was on, Richard Nixon once candidly observed, “Money talks and bullshit walks.” In contrast Former Secretary Duncan’s speeches were all bullshit. He specialized in lines like this: 

“There is no question that our country needs you. Our children need you.”

“If you care about promoting opportunity and reducing inequality, the classroom is the place to start.”

“Great teaching is about so much more than education; it is a daily fight for social justice.”

“This call to teaching is the great public mission of our time ..[4]

Resorting to this flowery symbolism suggests that the substantial benefits of teaching are not what they should be — particularly when we consider how hard it is. That doesn’t mean symbolic benefits are unworthy. But they certainly don’t offer the same degree of comfort, safety and security as a full wallet. And, quite frankly, they don’t generally attract the best and the brightest.

Given present rewards for teaching, professionalizing entrance requirements would cause the candidate pool to dry up. Then where would we find the roughly 200,000 new teachers per year that the U.S. needs? Remember, it has been a long time since sexism forced top drawer women into teaching. Today’s competent woman have many other options. That’s why public officials privately worry that even the present low standards are too demanding — hence, alternative certification — to insure there is a supply of warm bodies for America’s educational Calcuttas.

Former Secretary Duncan said, “Put plain and simple, this country needs an army of great, new teachers.[5] What he does not say is that this country is not about to pony up sufficient rewards to attract many of the best and brightest, nor to require truly professional preparation. In fact, since our politicos discovered that teachers make great scapegoats — an approach pioneered by the Reagan administration — and since the Federal government came lurching through the school house door fixated on test scores and teacher “accountability,” teaching has become considerably less attractive to top rung people. 

               Mr. Duncan’s suspiciously overblown rhetoric makes one wonder if he, or any of the Trump era reformers, would encourage his own kids to choose the occupation. A quote from William C. Bagley comes to mind:

When will men who would never for a moment encourage their own sons to enter the work of the public schools cease to tell us that education is the greatest and noblest of all human callings? [6]

Teacher Power

               Another issue is at work here as well. Professionalizing teaching would increase teacher power. A body of mature, well-trained professionals who are confidant and know what they are doing would make it much harder for school board amateurs to have their way. 

Principals would no longer have the same leverage either. Some of them now walk the halls like Little Caesar. That wouldn’t sit well with confidant, self-respecting teachers.

Politicians, would also find it harder to ram top-down “reform” down teacher’s throats. State officials would be similarly constrained. Moreover, parental bullying and blaming would find a less receptive environment. In short, real teacher professionalization would cause a major power shift in public schooling. And there are a lot of people who have a vested interest in keeping teachers as supine as possible.     


The truth is all this talk about high quality teacher preparation is just so much blather. If we really wanted to accomplish that we would immediately stop tolerating incompetent and irresponsible state regulation, ever-easier ways to become a teacher and exploitation of the teacher education cash cow by short-sighted college officials. But given the present costs and benefits of being a teacher, it is absolutely necessary to continue to make it cheap and easy to enter the occupation.

Of course this slapdash approach creates many difficulties, including poor instruction. But those problems can be papered over by focusing still more blame on teachers and teacher educators rather than on underlying causes such as poverty and family disintegration. And today’s “reform” rhetoric provides a perfect example of this political sleight of hand.

It’s the Cancer, Stupid, Not the Pimple! 

Now, here is the most disturbing aspect of this whole situation. While reformers distract us with their nattering about school choice, alternative certification and the like, they simultaneously ignore a problem that screams for immediate solution. The cancer on our education system is the disordered and unjust way we fund our schools. All else is merely a pimple on our educational system’s backside compared to the devastation this causes,

In SAN ANTONIO SCHOOL DISTRICT v. RODRIGUEZ, 411 U.S. 1 (1973) Supreme Court Justice Stewart said this about that system, “The method of financing public schools … has resulted in a system of public education that can fairly be described as chaotic and unjust.” Justice Marshall, with Justice Douglass concurring, added that the present system, “… arbitrarily channels educational resources in accordance with the fortuity of the amount of taxable wealth within each district.” Such a system, Marshall emphasized “… deprives children in their earliest years of the chance to reach their full potential as citizens.”[7]

Nearly four decades later this asinine system remains; and “reformers” ignore the havoc it causes. Why do they ignore such a fundamental problem? They know that it is the third rail of education politics. Touch it and very bad things can happen. Blaming teachers and teacher educators entails no risk at all.

The Bogeyman of Foreign Competition

Mr. Duncan claims to have been motivated in his criticisms by an alarming problem. He alleges that revolutionary change is necessary in teacher education in order to prepare today’s children to compete in tomorrow’s ever more competitive global marketplace. 

This is just Reagan era shtick from A Nation At Risk, warmed over. The idea that poor quality teacher education is causing us to be eclipsed in international competition is far-fetched at best. In fact, when one tours the literature on U.S. international competitiveness, education is rarely even mentioned. And so far as teacher education is concerned, it doesn’t even merit a footnote. However, a badly deteriorated infrastructure is described as a major player in America’s declining competitiveness. Health costs also are said to put American business at a disadvantage. So does the America’s business practice of not looking beyond the next quarter, under-investment in plant modernization, declining spending on research and development, one-sided trade agreements, living beyond our means, and over-spending on military adventures (at least 2 trillion dollars for the Iraq war alone). And let’s not forget greed and irresponsibility in the upper echelons of corporate America. Watching these corporate fat cats goble everything before them while screwing the people who do the actual work reminds one of a quote from that great American thinker, Daffy Duck, “Consequences, Schmonsequences, as long as I’m rich!”[8]

Let’s not forget the most important chokehold on US international competitiveness — our inability to get off the dime politically. While Democrats and Republicans remain locked in endless, tedious, counter-productive, bickering and posturing, America’s competitors are on the march. 

Here is one, of many, many, examples. Japan, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan and China all have developed, and now are rapidly expanding, super fast train networks. In fact, China is spending more than $1 trillion on this technology — the second largest public works project in history.[9] Meanwhile the U.S. has yet to build a single mile of ultra high-speed rail. And, to make matters worse, our highways and bridges also are falling apart. 

Yes, our government’s inability to function rationally plays a much, much greater role in America’s diminishing international competitiveness than mediocre teacher education, even mediocre schools, ever could. And despite Donald Trump’s adjective rich baloney, that looks to continue until our government and corporate officials are as competent as theirs. 


Let’s be honest about this. When it comes to teacher quality, we get what we pay for. As a matter of fact, given the abuse, disrespect and stupid top-down “reform” that we heap on teachers, we’re getting more than we pay for. That’s an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless.

Tinkering around the edges of teacher education is not going to significantly change the effectiveness of the occupation or the performance of our schools. Only professionalization and de-politicization of the teaching force can accomplish that. Yet that is not in sight — even on the most distant horizon.


[1][1] A Call To Teaching, Secretary Duncan’s Remarks at the Rotunda of the University of Virginia, October 9, 2009, “””

[2] Ibid.


[4] Idem.

[5] Idem.

[6] William C. Bagley,,


[8] From Looney Tunes Ali Baba Bunny (1957, Chuck Jones),

[9] High Speed Rail in China, The Transport Politic,