When you hit your knees tonight, thank the God to whom you pray that we don’t train air-traffic controllers the way we train teachers, or turn their first years on the job into a perverse hazing ritual at the expense of the innocent. “What? You think you’re the first person to run a plane into a mountain?” disdainful veterans would tell tearful rookies in the staff lounge of the control tower, spinning tales of their own early, fatal mishaps. “Don’t worry, you’ll learn. Look, no one can do this job straight from college.”
Not that anyone tried to prepare them. If air-traffic-control school looked like ed school, course readings and class discussions would dwell on the structural inequities of air travel. If you were an air-traffic-control student, you’d write papers about the lingering effects of colonialism on state-run airlines. The point of your degree program wouldn’t be vocational training but the development of your personal philosophy of transportation. Everything else you’d learn on the job once you became licensed. What’s important, you see, is that you view the profession “through a critical lens” and demonstrate your commitment to social justice. “Aero Mexico, you’re cleared for takeoff. American? Circle the field and reflect on your privilege. At this airport, we land planes for equity.”
In too many ed schools, would-be teachers feel as if they’re attending elementary school, not preparing to teach it. In a 2022 Wall Street Journal op-ed, a teacher named Daniel Buck described making Black Lives Matter friendship bracelets, attending classes that sound like group-therapy sessions, and completing assignments—in graduate school—consisting of acrostic poems and rap videos. This is not a recent phenomenon. I still have the vocabulary picture book that I made in ed school 20 years ago of out construction paper, glue, and pictures clipped from magazines. I got an A each time I submitted it. In three different classes.
Ask a teacher whether I’m exaggerating about the lack of intellectual rigor and job preparedness. Better yet, ask the people who hire teachers. Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute points out that a mere 7 percent of school-district superintendents, and only 13 percent of principals, think certification guarantees that a teacher “has what it takes” to be effective in the classroom. “One must wonder whether costly, less than respected preparation programs dissuade many who might otherwise be inclined to consider a teaching career,” Hess writes.
This brings us to Florida governor Ron DeSantis and a plan he announced in the summer of 2022 to address his state’s educator shortage by allowing retired military-service personnel to become teachers. According to the plan, honorably discharged veterans with four or more years of service and a minimum of 60 college credits are now eligible for a five-year temporary teaching certificate while they matriculate toward a bachelor’s degree—an idea not very different from Teach for America or other “alternative-certification” pathways into the classroom. Teachers’-union President Randi Weingarten sprang into action, declaring the idea insulting to teachers who have worked hard to obtain advanced degrees and certifications. The idea that anyone can teach, sniffed the ideological chameleon Diane Ravitch, shows “utter contempt for the teaching profession.”
In fact, if anyone is insulting teachers and showing them utter contempt, it’s ed schools, which wield monopoly power over teacher licensure and have little incentive to change cash-cow programs that are poorly regarded within the field, and even on their own campuses.
There’s no denying that our schools of education are citadels of cartoonish wokeness and have been for decades. But their greater sin—by far—is their refusal to take seriously their obligation to ensure that teachers are ready to the degree humanly possible for classroom competence. New data from the long-running National Assessment of Educational Progress released in the fall show that test scores plummeted during Covid, wiping away 20 years of gains in math and reading scores. Ed-school follies, never cute or funny, are now simply no longer tolerable.
In 2002, when I interviewed at the South Bronx public school where I would spend the next five years teaching, I surprised the principal by telling her I wanted to teach fifth grade. These were the oldest kids in the school and from her perspective the hardest to teach, since at least a third of them were one or more years behind, entering adolescence, and hard to handle. I was less concerned about behavior management than keeping a secret that made the thought of teaching kindergarten or first grade terrifying: I had no idea how (and certainly no training) to teach children to read.
In retrospect, my fears were misplaced. “Parents who proudly bring their children to school on the first day of kindergarten are making a big mistake: They assume that their child’s teacher has been taught how to teach reading. They haven’t,” writes Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in his 2017 book Language at the Speed of Sight. “The principal function of schools of education is to socialize prospective teachers into an ideology—a set of beliefs about children, the nature of education, and the teacher’s role.” Kate Walsh, the former head of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) and a long-time ed-school Torquemada, has described this as “not unlike the transformation of Pinocchio from puppet to real boy,” with ed schools aiming to “confront and expunge the prejudices of teacher candidates, particularly those related to race, class, language, and culture.”
Like an oyster turning an irritating grain of sand into a pearl (or a scab over a wound, if you prefer), teachers have begun to rebel. The counterrevolution began in 2018, when a journalist for American Public Media, Emily Hanford, began a series of podcasts on why children aren’t being taught to read. “The prevailing approaches to reading instruction in American schools are inconsistent with basic things scientists have discovered about how children learn to read,” she reported. This wasn’t a sudden development. Among researchers, the reading wars had ended long ago in a rout favoring explicit instruction in phonics. “Most teachers nationwide are not being taught reading science because many deans and faculty in colleges of education either don’t know the science or dismiss it. As a result of their intransigence, millions of kids have been set up to fail,” explained Hanford, whose sympathetic reporting hit like a hammer through glass. It was an Emperor’s New Clothes moment for beleaguered teachers, who have long been less sinners than sinned against. They wrote letters to their ed schools (I wrote one myself), calling out their lousy preparation. Lawmakers in dozens of states introduced measures that would require schools to use evidence-based methods for teaching children to read. There’s even a Facebook group for teachers called “Science of Reading: What I Should Have Learned in College.” It has more than 175,000 members.
Is this enough to stir ed schools from their complacency? Maybe. NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review monitors and rates ed schools; it reports that 51 percent of 1,000 elementary-teacher-preparation programs across the country now teach the science of reading. That sounds encouraging, but it doesn’t necessarily mean hidebound or indifferent ed schools have had a Damascus Road conversion. Coverage doesn’t guarantee valorizing the science of reading to would-be teachers or ensuring that they have the background to teach it successfully.
This brings us back to DeSantis’s plan to make it easier for military veterans and former first responders to become teachers. A local news report in Jacksonville, Florida, in the fall found that nearly 400 veterans have signed up for the program, but none had been hired in the area’s largest school districts despite an even larger number of vacancies. Local teachers’-union leaders continue to insist that the root cause of Florida’s teacher shortage is low pay and prestige. “You can’t just throw a warm body in a classroom, that’s not the answer,” huffed one union chief. “My job is to look out for the students and those educating the students.”
Isn’t it pretty to think so? It’s hard to deride efforts to open up the teaching profession as seeking only a warm body when the only thing a master’s degree in education has been shown to raise is not test scores but a teacher’s salary. “The fact that teachers with master’s degrees are no more effective in the classroom, on average, than their colleagues without an advanced degree is one of the most consistent findings in education research,” noted Matthew M. Chingos in a report by the Brookings Institution. This makes the idea of pressing veterans and first responders into service as teachers sound less than absurd.
Leslye Arsht, whose 30-year career in education includes working in Iraq in 2003 on a civilian team that helped to rebuild the Iraqi Ministry of Education, once spent months trying to figure out how the military succeeds where schools often fail in taking ordinary kids from every kind of environment and turning them into responsible adults. She tells a story about speaking with senior officials and military brass who mostly mumbled or maintained a sphinxlike silence in response to her queries. Finally, a staffer in Accessions, which represents the culture and personalities of each of the Army branches, “put his hand over his mouth and whispered, ‘It’s basic training.’” Basic training makes demands physically and mentally, but the critical factor is that every recruit starts with a clean slate. “You take away all the black marks and bruises,” Arsht explains. “It doesn’t matter where you came from, or where you think you’re going. It’s all about now, and what you need to know to be successful.” Ten weeks later, you emerge having learned and practiced discipline and teamwork, and with a sense of purpose. You’re part of something bigger. Now you’re on a career track, training and learning what you need to succeed. “You can see and you feel the progress you are making,” Arsht explains. “That is not what happens in K–12.”
Or in ed school.
Consider that the typical public-school teacher is likely drawn to the classroom because he or she felt comfortable and successful there as a kid, even in mediocre school settings. The typical grunt’s experience was probably the opposite. The military was his first encounter with a functional learning environment. This is not to suggest that schools should be run like Parris Island, but the self-discipline, adaptability, sense of mission over self, and ability to work under highly stressful conditions that military service impresses upon soldiers makes intuitive sense when thinking about the qualities you look for in a teacher who is likely to succeed and stick around—particularly if what it takes to be an effective teacher is learned on the job anyway. Throwing unprepared young women and men into classrooms isn’t something new or novel. We do it every September. But if you ask me who I’d rather have in front of my child’s classroom, a teacher fresh out of the Marine Corps or one out of Middlebury, I’ll take my chances with the jarhead.
Is it possible, even likely, that DeSantis’s plan is more about politics than improving outcomes for kids? Sure, but it’s not the worst idea. The worst idea is what we’re doing now.
Photo: Pasco County Schools
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