Walter E. Williams bio photo

Walter E. Williams

Bradley Prize Winner 2017

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.

What passes for educational enlightenment these days boggles the mind. Matt Gouras, of The Associated Press, writing in the Jan. 5 Seattle Times tells a story about Tennessee schools. The success of some students has made other students feel badly about themselves.

What’re the schools’ responses? Public schools in Nashville have stopped posting honor rolls. Some are considering a ban on posting exemplary schoolwork on bulletin boards. Others have canceled academic pep rallies, while others might eliminate spelling bees. Nashville’s Julia Green Elementary School principal, Steven Baum, agrees, thinking that spelling bees and publicly graded events are leftovers from the days of ranking and sorting students. He says: “I discourage competitive games at school. They just don’t fit my worldview of what a school should be.”

This is a vision all too common among today’s educationists, but there’s a good reason for it: too large a percentage of teachers represent the very bottom of the academic achievement barrel and as such fall easy prey to mindless and destructive fads.

Retired Indiana University (of Pennsylvania) physics professor Donald E. Simanek has assembled considerable data on just who becomes a teacher. Freshman college students who choose education as a major “are on the average, one of the academically weakest groups. Those choosing non-teaching physics and math are one of the academically strongest groups. Some of the more capable who initially chose teaching will find the teacher-preparation curriculum to be boring and intellectually empty, and shift to curricula that are academically more challenging and rewarding.” Simanek adds: “On tests such as the Wessman Personnel Classification Test of verbal analogy and elementary arithmetical computations, the teachers scored, on average, only slightly better than clerical workers. A rather low score was enough to pass. Yet half the teachers failed.”

There are other causes for the sorry state of today’s primary and secondary education. There’s been the politicizing of education. Teachers have recruited students to write letters to the president protesting the war and participate in demonstrations against school budget cuts. Very often, good teachers and principal are faced with the impossible task of having to deal with administrators and school boards who are intellectual inferiors and motivated by political considerations rather than what’s best for children.

One of the very best things that can be done for education is to eliminate schools of education. There’s little in the curriculum that contributes directly to the development of the mind. Simanek says that “most teachers have learned ‘methods and skills’ of teaching, but don’t have a solid understanding of the subject they teach. So they end up ‘teaching’ trivia, misinformation and intellectual garbage, but doing it with ‘professional’ polish. Most do not display love of learning, nor the ability to do intense intellectual activity of any kind. Lacking these qualities, they cannot possibly inspire and nourish these qualities in their students.”

According to a recent study by the North Central Regional Education Laboratory titled, “Effective Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategies in the Midwest,” 75 percent to 100 percent of the teachers that leave the profession are ranked as either “effective” or “very effective.

To improve teaching, we must attract people of higher intellectual ability and we must make teacher salaries related to ability and effectiveness. We must ensure that teachers have more academic freedom, better working conditions and a suitable environment for teaching. An important component of that environment is the capacity to remove students who are alien and hostile to the education process. Finally, we should consider curriculum changes that eliminate courses that have little, if anything, to do with reading, writing and arithmetic.

The low academic quality of many of our teachers is neither flattering nor comfortable to confront, but confront it we must if we’re to do anything about our sorry state of education.