EXCLUSIVE: Former Trump official sounds alarm on teacher training programs

Bob King, former Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education, says the 'American workforce is suffering' due to 'subpar teaching methods that were created for a 19th century agrarian economy.'

3 in 10 high school graduates in 23 states who take a military qualifying exam are scoring less than 30 out of 100, raising concerns about national security.

Bob King, former Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education during the Trump administration, says that colleges’ poor teacher training programs  are producing teachers who aren’t as prepared as they need to be to help K-``12 students learn.

King’s professional background gives him unique insight into how universities train teachers, and thus how post-secondary curriculum influences the next generation of learners long before they ever become college students. 

Before joining the Trump administration, King served as the president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. He is a former chancellor of the State University of New York system and spent nine years on the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars, to which he was nominated by then-President George W. Bush.

Campus Reform spoke with King last week about what teacher training programs are doing to America’s global competitiveness, where student achievement is now, and what can be done to lift up students by incentivizing great teachers. 

The following has been edited for length and clarity. [Disclosure: Morabito worked at the Department of Education during King’s time there, and she and King interacted often regarding press questions and announcements.]

AM: This past year has led to a renewed focus on teachers, who are doing a difficult job in a high-turnover career, at a time when teacher shortages are becoming increasingly common. In your experience, what have you seen going on in colleges that determines who becomes teachers, and how well prepared - or unprepared - they are to lead a classroom?

BK: Much of the challenge of high turnover stems from failing to effectively select candidates, or to prepare them for this vitally important career. The current system we use to select and train teachers is vastly inferior to the process used in other countries. When I was president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, I looked into which college students go on to become teachers. The results were alarming: While teachers in the highest-performing countries generally come from the top 15 to 25 percent of their high school graduating class, most American teachers come from the bottom third. This is not to say we have no great teachers. We have some absolutely spectacular educators. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough, and not enough of the ones we have are serving in the inner cities or in poor rural districts, where the need for great teachers is the most profound. 

In top-performing countries, all teachers are required to either major or minor in the subjects they will be teaching. The U.S. takes that approach for middle and high school teachers, but it doesn’t expect the same of elementary educators the way the highest-performing nations do. In our country, elementary educators major in Elementary Education. As a consequence, most do not develop the deep content knowledge necessary to be an effective teacher. 

The problem was magnified when we surveyed all of our public universities, looking at the ten most popular majors. Elementary Education was one of the ten, based on total enrollment. Our survey demonstrated that students admitted to elementary education majors had the lowest average ACT scores, and had the highest percentage of students entering the university in need of remedial courses. 

In simple terms, our weakest students were being attracted to elementary education and not being required to develop the content knowledge necessary to be an effective educator. Not only do their students suffer, these teachers eventually become frustrated, and many leave the profession.   

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AM: If American teachers are starting off at a disadvantage compared to teachers overseas, how does this impact K-12 students? 

BK: As we know, if we take math-phobic students and encourage them to become elementary educators, their limitations in math get passed on to their students. To help a struggling student, a teacher needs to understand why and how arithmetic works. Without that understanding, the building blocks for algebra don’t get created in the minds and capabilities of too many youngsters. 

PISA scores are the clearest picture we have of how well American students rank compared to students in other industrialized countries. PISA now tests 15-year-olds in over 70 countries. On the most recent PISA, the average American student demonstrated nearly four years less math knowledge than the average Chinese student. The four participating provinces in China had of 44 percent their 15-year-olds scoring in the top two achievement brackets. We had 8 percent of our 15-year-olds scoring in those ranges. This will, without question, impact America’s long term global competitiveness. 

It’s not because our kids aren’t as smart; it’s because our schools continue to use subpar teaching methods that were created for a 19th century agrarian economy. The world has changed, and the way we educate young people has not kept pace. The American workforce is suffering for it. 

Take the results of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), which measures career skills of adults in more than 20 countries. Americans scored around the middle of the pack in literacy, but when it came to “problem solving in a computer-rich environment,” Americans scored dead last. 

AM: This looks like a recipe for cybersecurity weakness, to say nothing of what this does for competitiveness in the global economy. And there has been a persistent skills gap in the American labor market, where workers don’t have the skills they need to do available jobs, and employers can’t find American workers with the skills they’re looking for. In your research, you had a unique strategy for finding out how educational standards affect not just the workforce, but also national security. How did this work?

BK: We were asked how well the Nation’s Report Card predicts the employability of high school graduates. While we don’t see a direct predictive capability, we did search for an employer with a presence in every state that assessed high school graduates. The U.S. military had this data in the results of the Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT), which measures vocabulary, basic reading, and math skills. 

Congress has passed legislation saying that anyone who scores below a 10 on this 100-point test is unable to serve in the military. The military has decided, in addition, they will only admit to service 4% of those who score between 11 and 30. Sadly, performance on this test is, to put it mildly, abysmal: In 23 states, more than 30% of test-takers can’t clear that 30-point bar. What is so alarming is that these young people who can’t pass the test were allowed to graduate from our high schools, and were told the diploma they earned assured they were ready for either college or the workforce. 

The failure of so many young people to qualify for military service will undoubtedly affect military readiness. The inability to educate more of our young people to very high levels, especially in the STEM disciplines, will further impact our ability to protect the nation in an increasingly dangerous world. 

AM: That tells us that students aren’t getting what they need from K-12 education. A high school diploma doesn’t mean anything unless it is backed up by skills in core subjects. This is a glaring problem, and the constant media narrative is that we would have more teachers and better teachers if teachers were paid more. Is there any truth to that? How do we encourage great teachers? 

BK: I think there is some truth to that statement, but, simply paying more money to a poor-performing teacher makes little sense. I believe everyone comes to work and tries to do their best, regardless of what they are being paid. The problem is that, for many teachers, their best isn’t what it needs to be. If we could improve the way we provide professional development, some of these teachers could be skilled up enough to measurably improve their performance, and that of their students. 

The real reason to elevate teacher pay is to be able to recruit into teaching higher performing students who would be interested in teaching, but want the greater financial security that comes from other professions and occupations. It is also true that when you mention higher teacher compensation to state legislators, they immediately think “higher taxes.”  So, there is a perception issue that needs to be addressed, along with the practical challenge of how you could sensibly and selectively elevate teacher compensation. 

America has been persuaded over many years, primarily by the teachers unions, that small class size is the secret to higher student performance. The data, however, demonstrates that class size beyond second or third grade does not measurably improve student performance. Studies numbering well over a hundred sixty support that conclusion. Yet what I call the “myth of small class size” continues to dominate the economics of teaching and school budgets.

In Kentucky, we crunched the numbers. At the time, we had one teacher for every sixteen students in the public school system. That was not class size, just the ratio of the number of teachers to the number of enrolled students. We created a hypothetical: If we changed the ratio from 1:16 to 1:23, for the same number of total dollars dedicated to teacher compensation, we could move the entry salary up to the then-current middle of the existing compensation range, move the new middle to the then-existing top of the range, and move the top of the ranges to over $100,000. 

We felt that undertaking an effort like this would elevate not just the compensation for teachers, but attract higher performing young people into the profession, and elevate the stature of teacher educators within our universities, and teachers, generally, within our state.

But, of course, teachers unions generate dues revenue based on the quantity of teachers, not the quality of those teachers. So they have sold this idea that all of our educational woes could be solved by smaller class sizes, which means hiring more teachers. 

AM: Historical data bears this out: In 2000, the Clinton administration used federal funding to hire another 29,000 teachers, and they announced that doing so had benefitted 17 million children. But achievement markers hardly budged! And yet, we have been convinced that the quantity of teachers matters more than the quality of their teaching. 

BK: Over twenty years ago, I undertook a study to determine whether there was a discernible link between the academic achievement level of people within our workforce and our prosperity and military security. The relationship is unmistakable. When I graduated from college 50 years ago, the U.S. had the highest percentage of people with a bachelor’s degree or higher in our workforce. The next nearest country (Great Britain) had half the percentage of the what we did. Today, the percentage of highly educated people in our workforce has increased over the past fifty years, but not nearly as fast as in other nations. We rank tenth or twelfth, depending on what study you look at. 

While it is true that America needs more people with skills that require education below the bachelor’s degree level, it is also the case that America needs more people with undergraduate and advanced degrees. It is unlikely we can meet this challenge unless we recognize the deep deficiencies in our K-12 system. In my view, we cannot fix those problems unless we are prepared to fix the way this country recruits and trains teachers.  

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AM: Campus Reform has been covering the decline of academic standards in college across all majors. It’s not just future teachers whose training is trending downward in quality; it’s virtually every program. Colleges are dropping their grading standards, nominally due to the pandemic, but these temporary measures are sticking around. Many are ditching the SAT and ACT as well. What is responsible for the decline in standards, and how do we turn this around? 

BK: The answer to your question would probably require an entire additional interview. We have entered a period where race and gender seem to be dominating our thinking and decision making. While those issues have gained currency in America, the reality is that the world is not sitting on its hands waiting for us to get through this. Quality and depth of knowledge will be what drive the future. It is a law of nature, just as powerful and unavoidable as the law of gravity. 

So consider what the data tells us, using our most recent NAEP results for 12th graders as a guide. NAEP uses four scoring levels described with words: advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic. Sadly, the words obscure the actual meaning of the scores being achieved by our students. 

I once asked former Education Secretary Arne Duncan what letter grade he saw as equating to a NAEP “basic” score. He responded, “probably a D+ to C-”. Consider what the 12th grade NAEP results demonstrated: No racial or ethnic group achieved an average score on the math section of proficient or higher. Broken down further, only 1 in 14 Black kids scored proficient or above. For Hispanic kids, 1 in 8. For white and Asian kids, only 1 in 2. 

Yet, these same kids were allowed to graduate. These are the same kids who can’t get into the Army. The same kids who are being admitted to colleges, only to drop out a semester later because they are so poorly prepared. 

Politics is underneath all this. Teachers unions view their principal responsibility as protecting the weakest of their members and increasing their dues revenues by pushing the “myth of small class size”, and the notion of paying their current members more money will magically improve student performance.  

Universities need to help. Local school districts and school boards need to help. State legislators need to help. The answers are out there, being implemented in countries across the globe that are now outperforming us. Just as they learned from us in the 20th century, we would be wise to learn from them in the 21st. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AngelaLMorabito