Walter E. Williams bio photo

Walter E. Williams

Professor of Economics.
(703) 993-1148
D158 Mason Hall
Department of Economics
George Mason University

Related Sites:
The homepage of George Mason University.
Homepage of the Department of Economics at GMU.

Several weeks ago, my column “Teacher Ineptitude” was about the sorry state of teacher quality and concluded that while teacher ineptitude is neither flattering nor comfortable to confront, confront it we must if we’re to do anything about our sorry state of education.

 The situation is not pretty. Philadelphia schools are typical of poor-quality big-city schools. Susan Snyder, Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer, in her article “District to Help Teachers Pass Test” (March 24, 2004) reported “that half of the district’s 690 middle school teachers who took exams in math, English, social studies and science in September and November failed.” Other test results haven’t been released; Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said he understands “concerns that releasing the data could subject teachers to humiliation. … “

 The unflattering fact that we must own up to is that many, perhaps most, of those who choose teaching as a profession represent the very bottom of the academic barrel. Let’s look at it.

 The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) compiles loads of statistics on education. The NCES “Digest of Education Statistics” Table 136 shows average SAT scores by student characteristics for 2001. Students who select education as their major have the lowest SAT scores of any major (964). Math majors have the highest (1174).

 It’s the same story when education majors finish college and take tests for admission to graduate schools. In the case of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), education majors have an average score that’s the lowest (467) of all majors except for sociology majors (434). Putting this in perspective, math majors score the highest (720), followed closely by economics in third place (625).

 It’s roughly the same story for students taking the LSAT for admission to law schools where the possible scores range between 120 and 180. Out of 29 majors, education majors ranked 26th, averaging a score of 148. Physics/math majors came in first with a 158 score and economics majors third with 155. Readers can readily obtain this information by a Google search using the words “GRE major” and “LSAT major.”

 Though my column criticized teachers, I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged by the responses. Many teachers sent letters saying their experiences mirrored exactly what I reported. Quite a few wrote of horror stories of dealing with incompetent colleagues and administrators. There were also some fairly angry letters accusing me of “bashing teachers” and demanding an apology for doing so. The fact of the matter is that there are many excellent, competent and dedicated teachers often working in systems that reward incompetence and slovenliness and penalize excellence and dedication.

 Our nation has a serious education problem that easily threatens our future well-being. Corrective action requires that we acknowledge and correct deficiencies no matter how painful and embarrassing they might be. A good start in that direction is to examine successful teacher-training programs and see if we have the guts to imitate them.

 Hillsdale College in Michigan manages Hillsdale Academy, a K-12 primary and secondary school. At Hillsdale, no students major in education. Students major and minor in the subjects they will be teaching – specifically, art, biology, chemistry, English, French, German, history, Latin, mathematics, music, physical education, physics, science and Spanish. To be admitted to Hillsdale’s Teacher Education Program, a student must have and maintain a grade point average of 3.0 or higher.

 Needless to say, teacher incompetency isn’t the only explanation for our education malaise. Parents who don’t give a damn and students with minds and attitudes alien and hostile to the education process figure in as well. There’s not much politicians and the education establishment can do about these factors; however, it’s entirely within their power to take measures such as those practiced at Hillsdale to ensure teacher competency.