The Low Academic Quality of Too Many Teachers

These test questions demonstrate the low bar that states set in order for one to become a certified teacher.

By Walter Williams Published on December 28, 2017

My recent columns have focused on the extremely poor educational outcomes for black students. There’s enough blame for all involved to have their fair share. That includes students who are hostile and alien to the educational process and have derelict, uninterested home environments.

After all, if there is not someone in the home to ensure that a youngster does his homework, has wholesome meals, gets eight to 10 hours of sleep, and behaves in school, educational dollars won’t produce much.

There’s another educational issue that’s neither flattering nor comfortable to confront. That’s the low academic quality of so many teachers. It’s an issue that must be confronted and dealt with if we’re to improve the quality of education. Most states require prospective teachers to pass a certification test. How about a sample of some of the test questions.

Here’s a question from a recent test given to college students in Michigan planning to become teachers: “Which of the following is largest? a. 1/4, b. 3/5, c. 1/2, d. 9/20.” Another question: “A town planning committee must decide how to use a 115-acre piece of land. The committee sets aside 20 acres of the land for watershed protection and an additional 37.4 acres for recreation. How much of the land is set aside for watershed protection and recreation? a. 43.15 acres, b. 54.6 acres, c. 57.4 acres, d. 60.4 acres”.

The Arizona teacher certification test asks: “Janet can type 250 words in 5 minutes, what is her typing rate per minute? a. 50wpm, b. 66wpm, c. 55wpm, d. 45wpm.”

The California Basic Educational Skills Test asks the test taker to find the verb in the following sentence: “The interior temperatures of even the coolest stars are measured in millions of degrees. a. Coolest, b. Of even, c. Are measured, d. In millions.” A California Basic Educational Skills Test math question is: “You purchase a car making a down payment of $3,000 and 6 monthly payments of $225. How much have you paid so far for the car? a. $3225, b. $4350, c. $5375, d. $6550, e. $6398.”

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My guess is that these are questions that an eighth- or ninth-grader with a good education ought to be able to answer. Such test questions demonstrate the low bar that states set in order for one to become a certified teacher. Even with such low expectations, college graduates have failed these and similarly constructed teacher certification tests. Recently, New York, after being tied up in court for years, dropped its teacher literacy test amid claims of racism.

A 2011 investigation by WSB-TV found that more than 700 Georgia teachers had repeatedly failed at least one portion of the certification test they were required to pass before receiving a teaching certificate. Nearly 60 teachers had failed the test more than 10 times, and one teacher had failed the test 18 times. There were 297 teachers on the Atlanta school system’s payroll who had failed the state certification test five times or more.

With but a few exceptions, schools of education represent the academic slums of colleges. They tend to be home to students who have the lowest academic test scores — for example, SAT scores — when they enter college. They also tend to have the lowest scores when they graduate and choose to take postgraduate admissions tests — such as the GRE, the MCAT, and the LSAT. Professors at schools of education tend to have the lowest level of academic respectability. American education could benefit from eliminating schools of education.

You might ask: Without schools of education, how would teachers be trained? I think that we ought to adopt a practice whereby teachers are hired according to their undergraduate major.

I learned this talking to a headmistress of a private school. She said she doesn’t hire education majors. She said that if she hires a teacher to teach chemistry, math, English, or any other subject, the person must have a bachelor’s degree in the discipline. Pedagogical techniques can be learned through short formal training, coaching, and experience.


Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

Copyright 2017 The Daily Signal

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  • GPS Daddy

    Part of this problem are teacher salaries. With such low salaries and some districts combine that with low benefits being a teacher is relegated to those who can’t get a better job. Who can make a living with student school debt on 36k?

    • Law & Policy by Dani

      BINGO. Even with NO DEBT, “Who can make a living . . . on 36k?”

      • Average plumber starting salary is $27K. Average starting pay for electricians is $28K. Average teacher starting pay is $36K. Who keeps telling you that teachers are underpaid?

      • David Marshall

        Anyone who doesn’t spend more than 36k a year, or pools resources with another responsible earning adult, as has been the human norm for thousands of years.

    • jgmusgrove

      With teachers unions running the show, low pay and immediate benefits may be the norm, but large pensions are also included. This passes the true cost on to future taxpayers, making current costs seem lower; financial shenanigans.

    • Who expects to get more than $36K as a starting salary? Average teacher salary is $56K – higher than for plumbers and electricians. The problem is what kind of person is attracted to the job, then what kind of person can stand to keep doing the job. Think of dealing with a bureaucracy which actively opposes the actual education of children, along with inner city children who actively oppose being educated. Add in a lack of being able to discipline children or even hold them back for failing every class.

      A quarter of DC public school graduates can’t read or do basic math without a calculator. (And that’s just the graduates – only one in six actually graduate.) What kind of teacher survives in that sort of environment?

  • Law & Policy by Dani

    I agree. Especially at the high school level. History teachers should be history majors. English Lit teaches should be English and/or Literature
    Majors. Biology teachers should be biology majors, and so forth.

    As you stated, pedagogy can be taught in a program similar to the alternative certification program (ACP) here in Hillsborough County, FL. It’s a matter of taking 7, 6-week classes and you’re done — most of it truly can be done online via a Moodle platform. Not rocket science.

    I’m a career changer with 20 years of corporate experience. MBA and MPS in legal studies. Certified in business education. I teach related high school courses at a Title I Rennaisance school. An education major would have to learn from scratch everything I’ve learned in 20 years to be truly effective. Not just rattling off a pre-constructed lesson plan or presentation. Truly engaging and immersing students with practical knowledge and experience. Real world exposure. Not just textbook “theory” and concepts.

  • Eric Lorenz

    For a short while back in the late 90’s, I taught 1 credit hour computer applications classes (mainly Excel) while studying at my local community college. Not a lot of money, but it helped, and I was good at it. I was technically a PT adjunct professor. I eventually stopped, but kinda wish I hadn’t. To do the same thing now, this college requires a Master’s Degree. To teach classes that (then) paid less than minimum wage (when you worked it out per hour).

  • James

    Maybe if teaching paid better, you’d get better candidates for teaching positions? Capitalism 101

    • Ken Abbott

      A lot of money could be reallocated away from administrative costs, especially excessive administrative positions and salaries. More educators and fewer educrats, in other words.

    • Not going to happen. There’s more to teaching than money. You need a certain kind of person who is willing to put up not just with the children, but with the idiot bureaucracy. And then there are inner city schools, where the children are actively hostile to education (and teachers).

    • Bootsie

      Public schools aren’t capitalist enterprises. If they were then they would have to compete against other institutions and the left doesn’t want there to be any competition for their failed public education model.

    • David Marshall

      They’re actually paid very well, considering all the time off, and the more meaningful character of the work, as opposed to, say, accounting or digging ditches. Supply and demand: if a job is rewarding in other ways, the supply will increase, all else being equal.

  • Jason McCord

    Teaching is one of the worlds toughest professions. It is easy to be an instructor. But, being a teacher means creating the desire to learn. Sixth graders before the Second World War knew more than college sophomores today. The educational industrial complex has rigged the system. Robbing teachers of their due to line their own pockets. This includes politicians, unions, superintendents, text book publishers, contractors, etc. Bullying us and holding children hostage at the end of a gun; “Do you not care for the them'”, for their pleasure.

  • Nautilus

    Low academic quality is not just present in teacher certification. I’m going to bet there are an awful lot of people out there in a host of positions, from business, medical and government positions who couldn’t properly respond to those questions. Let’s just be honest, nobody wants to hear “you didn’t make the cut” anymore and so we’ve let people have so many tries and redos. If people saw what was really going on in schools (K through 12) in terms of students being passed on regardless of showing academic mastery, I think there would be a huge uproar. As a teacher, I routinely receive students that come from a lower grade level that are no where near ready to tackle the academic standards of the current year. The vast majority of these students come with the issues mentioned at the beginning of the article – no help from home, poor nutrition, no sleep, etc. which are all the things the schools have no control over. Our hands are tied.

  • Amused

    There are both good teachers and bad teachers in our schools

    Bad teachers hut our kids!

    Good teachers pay their union dues to ensure the bad teacherss can never be fired,

  • calgaltc

    The problems are many! Sub-par teachers, developmentally inappropriate curricula, lack of support from home, too much tech… the list could go on and on.

    It’s also hard to complain because teachers may take it out on our children.

    If anyone figures it out, let me know. But by then it will be too late for my children who will graduate in the spring and in a couple years.

  • Tom Goldie

    Sadly true in 1996 when I took mine. I walked past a room of re-takers on the way in. Had I known how simple the test was, I would have jeered them.

    Nearly every question was rudimentary, like:

    Which sentence is punctuated correctly?”

    A. I’m; tired I want to go to bed.
    B. I’m tired; I want to go to bed.
    C. I’m tired I want to; go to bed.
    D. I’m tired I want to go to; bed.

  • David Marshall

    I am a principal of a small (and new) private school. I would tend to agree that I’d prefer to interview people with academic specialties other than education (most of ours do), but they should also have demonstrated teaching skills, which does NOT come with a BA or MA in the proper subject.

    But I don’t find this article terribly persuasive about how easy tests for teachers are. Some tests begin with very easy questions, then become more demanding. That you can cherry-pick a few easy questions from among 50 states, is not what I’d call a strong argument, in and of itself. And there really is no more persuasive argument given in the article.

    And based on my own experience as a sub in American schools, I think a majority of teachers (at least in the communities I subbed in) are both skilled and well-intended.

  • bbb

    What happens to “teacher selection” in college is a not-so-subtle separation of sheep from goats.
    Having retired from education it was very clear during the last 1 1/2 decades that the “Education” schools in universities and colleges harvested Democrats, liberals, good future Union employees and those who could easily be brainwashed to believe America is bad and schools must correct children’s ideas about anything good about Founding Fathers and the Constitution. Goats – thinkers, innovators – were slapped with low grades and told to get lost.
    Today’s teacher salaries and health care perks are higher than that of many other fields.
    It isn’t about the money. It is about the political system embedded in universities and funded by foreign money and uber wealthy bigwigs wanting certain political outcomes.
    The kids suffer most.
    Discipline was tossed out the window in the 90’s under Clinton and there are fewer and fewer disciplinary measure each year. Teachers are now called “Classroom Mentors” and are taught to ask what their students would like to learn that day.
    Education is at the worst state since its beginning in this nation.
    It is now day care, a free food program, a clinic, a juvenile criminal holding tank and free housing for emotionally and mentally ill children.
    So, what can one expect of a public restroom, a public inner city park with needles and glass in it, or a public school?
    Get the Unions and politics out of colleges and universities, get politics and Unions out of public schools and replace some Christian tenets like thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not bear false witness or lie [Lev. 19:11] that were tossed out by social engineers in DC. Then you will have the return of good education.
    Too much to ask? Pray.

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