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


Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed. D.
La Salle University

Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.
And those who can't teach, teach teachers.

--  Anonymous

edited 11/10/11

Teacher education has long been a lowly activity, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan isn't adding to its status. He asserts that many, if not most, of the nation's teacher preparation programs are second-rate. He claims that they attract inferior students and weak faculty. And he charges 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 demands increased rigor in teacher preparation, he praises alternative quickie routes into teaching. Of course, logic demands that if teacher education lacks rigor, it needs to be tougher, not easier. But Mr. Duncan is inclined to favor affairs of state over logic despite the fact that he himself says, "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 claims he favors getting to the root of the nation's educational problems. Time magazine, for instance, quotes 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 doesn't follow his own advice.

Letting State Officials Off the Hook

Duncan conveniently ignores the fact that state government sets, and enforces, standards for teacher education. So if programs are lousy, Duncan's quarrel is, first and foremost, with state officials.

Significantly, the un-earmarked money that the Obama administration is injecting into schooling provides Duncan with a means to compel these officials to raise standards. He could declare that if they want a dime of that Leap to the Top $4 billion, they better enact and enforce tough teacher education standards.

Instead Secretary Duncan ignores state government's central role. He even applauds their embrace of still feebler "alternative" routes into teaching.

Would state officials do a good job of improving teacher education? Probably not; but Duncan is inordinately fond of top-down reform, so his inattention to state responsibility suggests a lack of seriousness.

Professional Schools of Education

Actually, if Mr. Duncan were not just "tinkering around the edges," but truly serious about improving teacher education, he would advocate the complete abolition of undergraduate programs. Instead, he would favor professional graduate level schools of education modeled on the training required by other established professions.

Consider what is demanded of aspiring physicians, attorneys, architects, optometrists, dentists, podiatrists, veterinarians, and chiropractors for example. All of these occupations require selective, tough, graduate level schooling in a specialized environment. To qualify for entrance candidates first have to grow up, get a college education, and pass a tough examination,

In contrast, teacher education programs are usually mere undergraduate majors 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 wants to major in education. In consequence, teacher educators have to make do with many immature, unfocused, marginally committed youngsters who aren't developmentally ready for serious study.

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. 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." Secretary Duncan emphasizes bullshit in his speeches. He specializes in lines like this:

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

"And 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 kind of oratory suggests that the substantial benefits of teaching are not what they should be -- particularly when we consider the demands. That doesn't mean symbolic benefits are unworthy, but they don't offer the same degree of safety and security as a full wallet.

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. is shortly going to need? Remember, it has been a long time since sexism forced the best and brightest women into teaching. Today's competent woman has 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.

Secretary Duncan says, "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 No Child Left Behind came lurching through the 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 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 greatly increase teacher power. A body of mature, well-trained professionals who are confidant and know what they are doing and why 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, such as Mr. Duncan, would also find it harder to ram top-down changes down teacher's throats. State officials would be similarly constrained. Moreover, parental bullying and blaming would find a less receptive atmosphere. In short, real teacher professionalization would cause a major power shift in public schooling. And there 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 the underlying causes. Duncan's rhetoric provides a perfect example of this political sleight of hand.

It's the Cancer, Not the Pimple

There is the most disturbing aspect of this whole situation. While Mr. Duncan distracts us with his nattering about teacher education, he simultaneously ignores a problem that screams for immediate solution. This cancer on our education system is the disordered and unjust way we fund our schools. Mediocre teacher education is a mere pimple on our educational system's backside compared to the devastation this causes,

Thirty-six years ago 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 Arne Duncan pretends the problem doesn't exist. Why does he ignore such a fundamental problem? He knows 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 to hammer on teacher education by an alarming problem. He alleges that revolutionary change is necessary in order to prepare today's children to compete in tomorrow's ever more competitive global marketplace.

This is just that Reagan era shtick from A Nation At Risk, warmed over. The idea that poor quality teacher education is causing us to be eclipsed by our international neighbors is far-fetched at best. There are far more immediate reasons American business is losing competitive advantage, but public officials conveniently ignore them for fear of angering well-heeled contributors.

Significantly, when one peruses the literature on U.S. international competitiveness, education is seldom mentioned. Teacher education 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 (a 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 reminds one of a quote from that great American thinker, Daffy Duck, "Consequences, Schmonsequences, as long as I'm rich!"[8]

Political Constipation

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 that looks to continue indefinitely.


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 might be getting more than we pay for. That's an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless.

Secretary Duncan's tinkering around the edges of teacher education is not going to significantly change the effectiveness of the occupation. Only professionalization and de-politicization can accomplish that.

[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,