Mark J. Perry posted an essay on Carpe Diem two days ago about grade inflation in university education departments (see the image to the right). Aside from offering me, as the holder of a BA in education history and policy, some personal embarrassment, the post gives strong evidence for the lack of rigor in teacher training that I discussed in my last post. These soft standards have a double effect: they lower the public perception of teachers, and they leave teachers worse prepared to transmit knowledge.
I want to argue, however—and this follows pretty directly from the discussion of expertise in my last post—that upping rigor is not a sufficient solution to the problem of weak teacher preparation; indeed, low-rigor is more symptomatic of our teacher-training problems than causal. The more important question is, what exactly are we trying to teach teachers? We want to up the rigor, yes, but the rigor of what?
There are, generally speaking, two types of material in a teacher training program: subject-area content and pedagogical technique. I talked briefly about the issues surrounding pedagogical technique in my last post and at considerable length in my post on how to improve teacher training. Upping the rigor on the psychology and pedagogical theory courses that dominate traditional training programs will not make teachers more effective in the classroom; what we need is a different kind of pedagogical training entirely, one that occurs in actual grade schools, under the mentorship of master teachers.
What I want to talk about today are the issues surrounding subject-area knowledge. I touched a bit on this in my last post, but I want to go into more detail, because this is something I don’t hear anyone talking about. No matter how it’s done, more rigorous subject-area classes for secondary-school teachers are probably a good thing, but it’s worth thinking carefully about exactly what type of rigor we want. The word rigor gets tossed around a lot in education discussions, and I’m not the first to point out that it’s meaning has gotten a little vague: rigorous has become more or less synonymous with difficult. But there are a lot of ways to make classes harder.