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Originally published as "Generation X Wants to Teach" that appeared in the International Journal of Instructional Media in 1999

Part 2

Fall Semester 2003 and beyond

In the intervening years between the Spring Semester of 1992 and the Fall Semester of 2003, the world changed in ways most could never predict. The Internet burst upon the scene, forever changing the ways information is stored, retrieved and used. A president was impeached but not convicted. An American presidential election was decided by a handful of voters in Florida (where I live). The United States was attacked on September 11, 2001 by Muslim extremists, resulting in the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings, major damage to the Pentagon, and thousands of lives lost in a single day. A war on terror was begun with attacks in Afghanistan and the subsequent overthrow of the Taliban, and a war with Iraq in 2003 that resulted in the destruction of the regime of Saddam Hussein but that also has resulted, at the beginning of 2006 in over 2200 US military dead, and over 15,000 US military wounded. In addition some estimates put the Iraqi deaths at more than 100,000. Indeed, the world has turned over many times between 1992 and 2006, but one constant that I observed was the results of the survey given to my students. If anything, the students in 2003 knew even less about social studies content than those in 1992. I repeat once again that I do not fault these students. Somehow, they arrived in my classes and in thousands of other similar classes throughout the United States with great expectations for becoming teachers, but sorely lacking in fundamental content knowledge in the basic subject areas. Please read on to get my reasoning


The purpose of any college or school of education is to prepare individuals for the profession of teaching. This purpose is accomplished in a variety of ways, but there are certain processes that nearly all abide by and share. Outside of variations in the number and mix of courses required, almost all teacher education programs require some hard evidence that a student who seeks admission has a sufficient amount of content knowledge, is of good moral character, and has the ability to communicate, both orally and in writing. In a very direct way, a fundamental flaw exists at this stage of the education of teachers. It has to do with ideas about accreditation, and the flawed inferences made about test results and the courses taken that appear on student transcripts. The admission process exists with the best of intentions, but we all know where the best of intentions can lead.

In the college in which I taught, in order to ensure that education majors have adequate preparation, a number of filters have been established. Accreditation organizations such as the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) refers to these as admission criteria. The idea was to ensure that students desiring to become teachers possess a sufficient knowledge base and an aptitude for learning. These criteria are entirely quantitative. First, they must have a "general education," meaning that they have taken and passed a core of courses that includes science, history, geography, literature, and mathematics at the college algebra level. The grade point average for the first two years of college, which includes courses required as part of general education, must be at least a 2.5 overall. Second, they must pass several examinations. The SAT or ACT must be passed with a score at a minimum of the fortieth percentile. The last "filter" is a state test that is taken at the end of the sophomore year. This test, known as the College Level Academic Skills Test (CLAST), measures a student's college level academic skills in reading, comprehension, mathematics, and the ability to write a coherent essay. The grade point average, general education core, the ACT or SAT, and the CLAST are used to make an inference about a student's knowledge, and his ability to succeed at college-level work. It is done with the best of intentions. The problem is that sooner or later, almost everyone succeeds. Of course, since this article was first published in 1999, my former college has discarded the SAT and ACT requirement for admission, requiring only a GPA of sufficient level for admission. This surely bodes ill.

Our culture and our institutions provide for second, third and even fourth chances for students who are not initially successful. For example, at my college, students who do not have 2.5 overall grade point averages may take courses in the college in an attempt to improve their averages (the vast majority do) Prior to discarding the SAT or ACT requirement, students who did not have a score on the ACT or SAT equal to or greater than the fortieth percentile were allowed to retake the test, or in many cases, petition admission to the teacher education program. There are even safety nets for students who cannot pass all sections of the CLAST. For example, a student can be admitted if he passes three of the four required sections, with the provision that he pass the remaining section within a specified period of time. For those desiring to become teachers, such safety nets are of dubious value.

There is widespread belief that early remediation of academic deficiencies has merit. It is rather well-understood that over half the students entering the community college system in Florida require at least one remedial course at the college level. By providing what amounts to high-school courses for college freshmen and sophomores, scarce higher education resources are used for purposes that would be considered unacceptable in the 1950s and 1960s. For those intending to become teachers, it is curious that remediation is provided at the college level often times in the very content these students will someday be teaching.


The deeper question, of course, is not that we have so many high school graduates and third and fourth year college students who are devoid of basic information about American history and culture, but rather, how, in the first place, these students came to have the expectations that they could become teachers of this content area. My former colleagues in mathematics, science, and language arts methods courses all said that their students also lacked college-level content knowledge in those subject areas. Often, they were teaching what amounted to about sixth grade math and science along with the pedagogy. They were usually quite silent about this, especially the untenured ones, and for good reason.

Sometimes I think whatever this phenomenon is begins early and stays late. Its symbols surround us and its consequences permeate our culture, our institutions, and especially our schools. Even late-night talk show hosts such as Jay Leno have no problem interviewing people on the street who are pretty much clueless about social science information, and shows such as "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader" thrive because so many adults aren't. We all know, have seen, or have otherwise personally experienced a  symbol  of this phenomenon - the Happy Face (aka Smiley Face). It is this sexless, politically neutral, and ethnically correct symbol that has become itself symbolic of a deepening shallowness and illusory attitude toward substance in education that will defy all attempts to raise standards, "reform" education, or realistically prepare our students for the 21st century. If it is nothing else, the Happy Face is a most visible representation of our idea of the so-called "Post-Modern" society.

One may ask whether such a view is narrow, and thus self-serving. After all, the Happy Face is a rather innocuous thing. It is easily constructed by even the most artistically challenged among us, and it does connote a feeling of wellbeing, and that everything's okay. Its distant cousin, or perhaps evil twin, the Sad Face (aka Frowny Face), is equally innocuous, and although it connotes something less than perfection, it is non-threatening. Children in elementary school delight in getting a "Happy Face" on their work, and are not terribly upset when a "Sad Face" graces one of their poorer efforts. One need only go to the nearest education supply store to see first hand the incredible variety of stickers, gold stars, and Sad and Smiley faces that can be purchased. But a more serious, and perhaps more dangerous extension of the "Smiley Face" phenomenon with all its permutations has found its way into the hallowed halls of higher education.

I sometimes wonder why it is that on so many university campuses colleges of education are held in such low regard by faculty of other professional colleges and liberal arts colleges. The answer to this may be found, at least partially, in the ways we treat our students. I have always believed that eye-witness evidence, if from a reliable source, is always the best. Well, I do consider myself to be a reliable person, and I can say without reservation that I have seen far too many examples and variations of the "Smiley Face" phenomenon dusted across student papers and reports in my former college. It caused me to wince to see university student papers, reports, and projects contain Smiley Faces and comments such as "Cute! " and "Super! " in place of useful appraisals that relate directly to whether students followed directions, met the objectives, or wrote something that was interesting or unique.

I cannot imagine that at law or medical schools one would find on any student papers or reports such words and symbols as are used in colleges of education. Imagine for example, the ridiculous scenario of a law student at Harvard who had just received back from his professor a paper on the history of tort reform that was laced with both sad and smiley faces or included, in lieu of genuine criticism, such words as "cute" and "super." I think such a student might ask for a refund of tuition for the course.

The students I taught were a generally well-behaved, well-intentioned group. In fact, they were, for the most part, genuinely nice. They seemed eager to learn the nuances and recipes for teaching successfully. In fact, to a large extent, that is all they wanted to learn. Unfortunately, their expectations of their teachers tended to be quite superficial. In reviewing student evaluations of past courses I have taught, the written comments, when they made them, fell into three categories: 1. those who said that the course was fun and interesting, 2. those who said that the course was either boring or too hard, and 3. those that said that the course stimulated them to learn. Since the evaluations were anonymous, and were not returned to the professors until several months after the end of the semester, they were quite free to say what was on their minds. I was constantly amazed that those who said the course was too boring or too hard seemed to indicate that if they didn't learn anything, it wasn't their fault. The attitude is similar to that reported by Peter Sacks in "Generation X Goes to College," which details this phenomenon. Whether or not students learn anything is no longer their fault; that responsibility belongs to the college faculty. It is part of the entitlement mentality that has taken firm root within our culture. The student logic goes something like this: "I deserve a good grade for trying. If I didn't learn what you wanted, it's not my fault, it's yours. You didn't make the course interesting or entertaining enough."

When one comes to realize that this, for many, is the extent of their philosophies of life, options become limited. I have always believed that before pedagogy can make any sense to a student, the student must have some store of information (never mind knowledge) about the content to be taught. Hmmmm. Do I ignore the abysmal condition of their collective information stores, and just teach them methods of teaching social studies, albeit in a vacuum of subject matter content, or do I teach them social studies while teaching them the methods? I tried to find a workable middle ground.


I chose to stimulate my students to want to learn more about social studies content, while at the same time integrating ideas and concepts about "how to teach." As a way of doing this, I employed several techniques and ideas that require them to use various forms of educational technology.

For example, each student in my classes was given a list of eight terms. The terms may include the names of people who have made some significant contribution to society, locations of places where important events occurred, fictional characters, and concepts that have relevance to our understanding of the world. Invariably, the students recognized few, if any of their assigned terms. Their job for this assignment was several-fold. First, they must find out what the terms are. To that end, I encouraged them to use all forms and sources of information. Particularly valuable for this purpose is the Internet. I set up a web site that contains clues to some of the terms, and quite a few students go there. But most really didn't know how to use the Internet. Part of the course involved teaching them how to find information. To be sure, the present state of information-retrieval technology offers nearly limitless possibilities to find what you are looking for. From on-line databases in libraries, to the Internet, to books, to CD-Rom encyclopedias, to asking parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and other students, I encouraged my students to find information any way they can. That is the first step. It is what they were to do with this information that was the heart of the assignment.

I endeavored to impress upon my students that they don't understand anything unless they understand it in more than one way. This is the key to creating knowledge. Using the eight terms, each student made a report to the class, usually in the form of a story. In making the presentation, each student was required to use instructional technology (such as a graphic poster-board, or a computer based display using presentation software such as PowerPoint or Freelance Graphics) to illustrate the perceived connections between the terms. The assignment, which I called "Content Links" has proven to be highly effective in helping students accomplish several things. First, they learned how to find information using whatever tools and sources that were available. Second, they learned how to think about quite disparate items of content in order to arrive at one or more perceived concepts about the content. Third, they learned how to create a graphic display that conveys to the class the connections they developed between the assigned terms. Fourth, they developed an understanding of each of their assigned terms that seems to have some staying power. To be sure, the assignment didn't solve the problem of serious content deficiencies, but I believe it was a step in the right direction. It was and still is, however, an uphill battle.

Eliza Doolittle, the street-tough Cockney flower girl in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion remarked, "The difference between a flower girl and a lady is not how she dresses, but how she's treated." There is great insight in Eliza's words. We treat these young people, these eager would-be teachers in much the same way those of us treated the woman with the ugly tongue who stole from the drugstore. To confront them about their obvious content deficiencies is to indict the very system into which we will ultimately send them. Not to confront them helps to perpetuate the system which will produce even more deficient teacher candidates in the next 15 to 20 years. The middle ground I chose is barely adequate. 

The solution, it would seem is fairly obvious: raise admission standards for colleges of education, thereby admitting only the most able candidates. But, in many states, that is problematical. The school population is simply growing too fast, and teachers are needed in rather large quantities, and quickly. Plus, if we admitted fewer students, colleges such as my former college would need fewer faculty - a prospect that would be resisted from individual faculty within the college, to unions, to the highest levels of the university. So, the emphasis, at least for now, is on quantity over quality.


Years ago, before the Internet, before personal computers, before nearly instantaneous access to just about whatever information exists anywhere, when educational technology was pretty much limited to slide projectors, film strip projectors, overhead projectors, and motion pictures, I was a graduate student working on my doctorate. As part of the curriculum, we studied a wide range of concepts and ideas that related to our field of study. I remember, in particular, an article by Benjamin Bloom entitled "Learning for Mastery." As I read it, it made sense to me. After all, what is the point of learning, if not for mastery? Bloom carefully described the prerequisites and conditions necessary to learn for mastery. What Bloom was getting at was the factor of time, and that mastery of a subject was directly related to the amount of time available for learning. I've always liked what Bloom had to say back then, and tried to incorporate his ideas into my own college-level teaching.

There is little, if any, discussion of "learning for mastery" in teacher education programs. It is a seldom discussed topic in most public schools. What happened to the idea? Well, if as I suspect, it is not expected that students at the elementary level learn a subject or area of content at a mastery level, could it could be because so many elementary school teachers themselves do not have mastery of content they are teaching? Most assuredly, the majority of students who make it through the courses I taught, as well as many of the courses taught by my former colleagues, did not have mastery of the very content they were expected to deliver as teachers. It is reasonable to believe that elementary school teachers must have knowledge of subject-matter content somewhere above the 6th grade level, but I would estimate that 75 % of my students had knowledge of social studies content at the sixth grade level or lower. In mathematics and science, the percent is probably about the same. Somehow, these young men and women made it through an educational system and into college without mastering very much content. Prior to my retirement at the end of the Fall 2003 semester, changes were made in the teacher education curriculum that deemphasize subject-matter content in favor of yet more pedagogy. So much has been infused into the curriculum that something must be deleted. That "something" is usually subject-matter content. Colleges also make a fundamental error when the assumption is made that because certain "content area" courses appear on students' transcripts that actual understanding of the content exists. My experience does not support that at all.

As a former faculty member and adviser in my college, I had many opportunities to review student transcripts. It was an amazing thing that a majority of my students had the requisite 12 semester hours in history, geography, and government, yet did not understand very much about fundamental ideas such as the Renaissance. They were largely ignorant of the rights contained in the Bill of Rights, and most could not locate major landform features such as the Tropic of Cancer or the Bay of Bengal. Most could not even locate the Missouri River on an unlabeled map of the United States. It was always a challenge to bring these eager young men and women up to a level that would be necessary to actually teach the content at the elementary and middle school levels. I say middle school because the course in question has the title Principles and Methods: Elementary and Middle School Social Studies.

The fundamental bone and sinew of education is not likely to change unless somehow the culture itself changes in ways that seem unlikely. Face it; we live at a time in which many values and what is considered knowledge are derived from the entertainment medium. In many conversations with students, both inside and outside the classroom, it became apparent that much of what they think is personal knowledge is largely derived from movies and television. They mistakenly assume that vicarious experiences are the same as actually knowing something.

In areas such as social studies, the actual content to be learned has become diffused. No longer is it necessary for students to actually know something about historical facts, or to have some concept of chronology, but rather (in the current popular jargon) be able to integrate content into such ideas as globalism and planet awareness. The who, what, when, where, and why questions of social studies have been replaced with broad themes which themselves lack any clear definition. In essence, we say, "Here are some broad ideas and themes, such as change, movement, and diversity. Here are some things that demonstrate change, movement, and diversity. How do you feel about this? Can you find other examples?"

The old woman with the ugly tongue is certainly deceased by now. In a strange way, she served a purpose for me that she could have hardly imagined back in 1963. I was able to talk to my students about my experience with her. She was a lynch pin, a prism through which I focused ideas about the impact of decisions made long ago, and how such decisions can affect one's thinking. She, and our mutual behaviors in that drugstore, were, I now realize, a harbinger of the thinking to come about what is right and wrong in our culture, and what we are willing to accept today as reasonable expectations for what we can do and what we can become. We didn't confront her thievery simply because we found her appearance too difficult to endure.

In a similar way, we don't confront the students who come to us with scant knowledge of the subject matter that they will someday teach, for to confront them is to confront the system that produced them, and we need that system. So, instead, we move them through the teacher education program, pretending, as it were, that pedagogy can overcome any content deficiency. The Smiley Face is our way of saying, "You're here, you tried, and that's okay." Sometimes, when I reflect on that, I begin to agree, but I always come to my senses, and go back to what I have argued for in this article.

So, it may not matter, all things considered, that young men and women entering the teaching profession today do not know about such things as December 7, 1941. But sometimes I wonder what, could they speak now, the 1102 young men who were killed aboard the USS Arizona that Sunday morning, many about the same ages as these would-be teachers, would think about that.


It's been over seven years since I left full time teaching. In that time, I've taught a few online courses for my former university, done consulting, traveled in the summer to the Canadian Maritimes, Europe and Alaska and the Caribbean with my wife, got and beat prostate cancer and observed the education scene at a distance. Nothing I've seen changes my mind about anything I've written here. As a matter of fact, the time away from the university seems to have been really helpful for clarifying my perceptions. If recent reports are accurate, the looming crisis of recruiting high caliber students into teaching is even more daunting than ten years ago. "No Child Left Behind" scored easy gains in the beginning, but has run out of gas. Current (2011) NAEP results are disappointing given the resources and hype about reform efforts. Especially in Civics, U.S. History, and Geography scores for 12 grade declined compared to the prior testing cycle, and it is in 12th grade where the results of the previous 11 years bear fruit or not.  In the Spring of 2008, several reports sounded alarms about the problem with declining high school graduation rates. In the 18 largest urban school districts, the average was about 50%, with the lowest at 25%. All the slogans, research, reforms and money spent over the last half century have made little, if any difference in this percent who graduate.

The problem is like a multi-headed hydra, and it's not going to get any easier in the next 30 years. But, back my observations about teacher education.

Sometimes, I think it's more, much more about following recipes and self-promotion. It is sort of a testament to the triumph of style over substance. For example, in my state, Florida, the test known as the "Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test" (FCAT) permeates the public schools. Teachers and schools are rewarded based on student performance on this test, and it seems as though Florida has entered a sort of a Lake Woebegone parallel universe, where all the students move inexorably toward a state of above averageness. But wait! When Florida students are measured by other tests such as the SAT and ACT, the truth becomes apparent, because Florida students score in the bottom 10% nationally. This is well-known, but little is done to challenge the FCAT. And, by the way, what in the world does "assessment test' actually mean? I am sorry for the divergence, but it was something I had to insert here.

I think back to a watershed moment in my own career. I remember a student who clearly plagiarized a lesson plan. When confronted, she had no idea what plagiarism was. At that point, she was a college senior majoring in elementary education. Out of curiosity, I checked her SAT, and she had a 500 combined score on the verbal and quantitative portions, yet she had been formally admitted to the program. Further checking revealed that she was among scores at my former college with the same non-existent qualifications, but they were FTE, which generates everything, including the positions that are occupied by the professors who teach them. A GPA of 2.5 is now all that is required to be admitted to the teacher education program.

Of course NCATE (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education) visited the college in the Spring of 2007. The visitation was put off for years because of a new dean, new program design, and a host of other trivial reasons. Having chaired two NCATE visitations, as well as personally written two 'knowledge bases for professional education" at my former college, and upon reflection, it seems that NCATE was rather easy to fool. The thousands of faculty and staff man-hours spent in preparation for the visits, including the 2007 one, are a huge drain of resources as well as resulting in somewhat dubious accreditation. Maybe NCATE accredited graduates are better teachers than those from non-accredited schools, but I cannot find the proof. What NCATE seems to me to be is the quintessential "good old boys and good old girls club." Of course now, in the Winter of 2012 with some signs that the recession is abating, there are still problems. Tax revenue shortfalls in my state of Florida mean that, lots of belt tightening will take place, resulting perhaps in changes that lead to genuine improvement. Odds are though, that won't happen.

"Anything not understood in more than one way is not understood at all."

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