At Ed Schools, a Low Degree of Difficulty

(Boston Herald, June 20, 2014)

Twelve years ago my wife and I went back to school. Not the same one, though: she went to medical school and I went to education school. I don’t think I’ll shock even the gentlest reader by asserting that the former was harder than the latter, but I would like to offer a glimpse of how differently rigorous they were.

Here’s a reconstruction of a typical conversation from our school days:

Me: “How was school, dear?”

Wife: “I have to master the circulatory system by Monday or repeat the entire year. How was school, dear?”

Me: “I have to write a one-page reflection on what education should be.”

Wife: [Mutters oaths, none of them Hippocratic.]

I can’t imagine a professional school more rigorous than medical school. And I’ll leave aside for now how crazy hard it is just to get in, or the I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-illegal madness of what happens after a doctor graduates. (Free romance tip: marry a doctor after she’s finished residency, not before.) But say what you want about it — and my wife and her classmates did, believe me — those med students learned how to be doctors.

Me? This ed student’s classes generally went like this: a professor would speak for a bit on some theoretical matter, then we’d break into small groups to discuss it for an extravagantly long time, then we’d get back into a big group and share our opinions some more. I remember a class one evening in which you could not speak unless you had been tossed an inflatable ball. My wife’s classes did not go like this.

If memory serves, the only tests I ever took were the state certification exams. These were parlor games compared to the board exams my wife took. I tried some sample questions and decided hey, seven out of 10 ain’t bad; she retreated to an undisclosed location for a week of dawn-to-nightfall study. I’m now certified to teach multiple subjects in two states. These certifications tell you as much about my competence as your license tells me how well you drive.

In education school I received constant encouragement to be a “reflective practitioner.” The thing is — and it’s the thing that still bugs me — I don’t recall learning how to do anything. Pilots aren’t trained by forming small groups to discuss the atmosphere. Cadets don’t become cops by writing weekly responses to “Crime and Punishment.” Law students have to pass the bar before their opinions are anything you’d pay for.

The logic was, I believe, that we would receive our practical training on the job. And I guess I did. But it was rather in the manner one would learn by being told to find the manual after the starboard engines quit. The hard way is not the worst way to learn; one would, however, expect more enlightened pedagogy from a school of education.

What do I wish I’d learned? I wish I’d learned what I’m still trying to figure out now, 14 years into my career. How to teach my students to read well, for one. A close second is what to do when they can’t. But hell, I’d have settled for learning how to take attendance, or collect papers, or manage a fire drill properly.

I also wish my experience was an unfortunate anomaly. Instead, a new report on our schools of education by the National Council on Teacher Quality augments my dismay: barely a third do an adequate job in reading instruction, around one in five do so in math, and under 10 percent do well in both simultaneously. Would we tolerate doctors with commensurate ignorance of treating fevers and mending broken limbs?

Teachers are known to speak wistfully of the public’s greater esteem for other professions. Having seen all it takes to practice medicine, there’s no doubt in this teacher’s mind that doctors earn their respect. Having seen all it takes to get hired to teach, I’d say we practitioners have some reflecting to do.