Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Let me begin with a disclaimer. I spent 13 years as a student in the public-school system. My mother just retired after teaching in the public-school system for more than 28 years. I married a public-school teacher, though she quit after our first child was born. My wife’s mother was a public-school teacher until her death a few years back. My little brother—public-school teacher. I’ve been in and around the system my whole life.

Since I’m so familiar with the public-school system, I wasn’t at all shocked when I read the Associated Press’s article on the National Council on Teacher Quality. The NCTQ reports that we’re doing a pretty lousy job preparing new teachers for the classroom. They looked at more than a thousand teacher-training programs at colleges and universities, and they weren’t impressed.

Through an exhaustive and unprecedented examination of how these schools operate, the review finds they have become an industry of mediocrity, churning out first-year teachers with classroom management skills and content knowledge inadequate to thrive in classrooms.


Some folks in the educational-industrial-complex are calling foul. I admit that the NCTQ worded its report provocatively. They’re trying to get a reaction. Just because it’s provocative doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Everyone knows that America’s public schools are in sad shape. Some schools are better than others, but even the best public schools in America don’t inspire a Halleluiah chorus.

However, I’m not hopeful that addressing the NCTQ’s concerns will help much. It’ll be a step in the right direction, but I think fixing public education will take more than some incremental improvements in teacher training.

The AP’s correct when it points to teacher quality as being the biggest problem in our public schools.

“There’s plenty of research out there that shows that teacher quality is the single most important factor,” said Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a supporter of the organization’s work.

Democrat Markell said: “We have to attract the best candidates” possible.

It’s not merely a matter of better training. The school system needs better college students to embark on a career in education. Look at standardized tests. SAT and GRE scores demonstrate that education majors are some of the poorest students on the college campus. Why? Why are the talented kids majoring in other things? It’s not for the money. Kids with some of the best test scores tend to major in English. You’d think they’d be smarter than that and major in something that will prepare them for a career.

The best students aren’t avoiding teacher-training programs because the programs are substandard. Dear NCTQ, better programs won’t fix the problem. Our best and brightest avoid the public-school system because they felt its soul-crushing power for thirteen years.

The public school is designed to take all types of students and churn out a consistent product. By it’s very nature it shoots for mediocrity. “Teach to the middle” is the mantra, whether it’s spoken out-loud or not.

Our best and brightest leave high school and, for the first time, breathe freedom. Is it a surprise that few decide to return? But a few do go back. Like Socrates who saw the Sun and crawled back into the cave to tell his countrymen, some young idealists do return. They dream of “making a difference.” And the system rewards their brave nobility by crushing their souls again.

The public-school system is a bureaucratic nightmare. Nameless forces try to micromanage a teacher’s every action. A form exists for every imaginable task. But the bureaucracy is necessary. We must micromanage because we know that so many of our teachers are substandard. But it’s a perverse world that we live in. The only ones who thrive in this soulless leviathan are the most mediocre of the lot. Mediocrity can fill out the paper work. Mediocrity likes meetings and workshops. Mediocrity can play the game. Our best and brightest teachers, however, suffocate in this atmosphere.

Nothing’s going to change because most Americans just don’t care. Oh, we weep and gnash our teeth. We say, “Someone needs to do something!” We shout about accountability. But honestly, we don’t care about education and educators. We just want a babysitter. We need some place to park our kids so we can get back to making money. The state’s more than happy to oblige. They need us all making money so that we can pay enough taxes to keep Social Security afloat for another year.

Until we create a system in which our best and brightest teachers can thrive, we’ll have mediocrity. But mediocrity will do for now. Mediocrity can babysit.

*Now allow me to remind you of my disclaimer at the beginning. Don’t tell me that there are some really great teachers out there. I know it. I’m related to some of them. My little brother, bless his heart, is a brilliant idealist. But the good teachers are in the minority, and if the NCTQ is to be believed their numbers continue to dwindle.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles