As sure as Earth rotates around the sun, college professors condemn high schools for freshmen who can't write decent papers, high school teachers blame middle schools for passing barely literate students along, and middle school teachers tsk-tsk elementary school teachers for kids who aren't comfortable with the basics of writing and arithmetic.
Elementary school teachers would be forgiven for blaming their teacher preparation programs for not adequately equipping them to lay the foundations of academic achievement for their young charges.
According to the latest National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) rating of 875 of the nation's undergraduate programs that prepare elementary school teachers, only 5 percent require teacher candidates to take sufficient courses in literature, science and history/social studies.
The subject of math is an apt example: Only 13 percent of programs require coverage of topics deemed critical by mathematicians.
"Elementary school education is foundational, and if you want to understand how important elementary math is, look no further than today's PISA scores," said Kate Walsh, NCTQ's president, referring to new figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment. They found that 15-year-old U.S. students score below the global average on math.
"If we're trying to figure out why kids are performing so badly in mathematics," Walsh added, "there's no subject more reliant on foundational skills from kindergarten on up. Yet we're looking at what programs do in math and they're all over the map; they do not expect elementary school teachers to master topics found in the elementary curriculum. And if you have a weak grasp, it may be that you are able to solve a fraction but not able to teach it."
The same can be said about science, history and literature. Though 83 percent of surveyed teacher preparation programs require a course in composition, only half require at least two courses in literature and composition, a paltry amount for such wide-ranging subjects. Just three in five require a course in early or modern American history and only 12 percent require courses in at least two science topics.
It's hard to imagine why anyone would want the people with the least amount of subject-area knowledge tasked with giving students a foundation in core content areas, but it's actually rational.
In order to have the expertise needed to pass certification tests in the core subjects, one has to have studied them extensively. But there is little incentive to do so when so few teacher programs require them and state certification exams for elementary school teachers don't test for deep content area knowledge at all.
And then there's the cultural aspect: The prevailing sentiment in education circles seems to be that the most important aspects of teaching are how much you can love your students and how committed to social justice your educational philosophy is, rather than how academically accomplished or pedagogically prepared you are.
NCTQ's report did uncover one bright spot -- reading instruction. Today, 39 percent of undergraduate programs for aspiring elementary school teachers (up from 29 percent in 2014) incorporate content from all five components of early reading instruction -- comprehension, vocabulary, phonics, fluency and phonemic awareness -- that research has determined are essential.
"It's still awful, but it's a full 10 percentage points higher than it was two years ago," said Walsh, "and I'm very heartened by the fact that more programs are paying attention to evidence-based research in reading instruction."
There is much work to be done, however, with obvious upgrades necessary in the crucial areas of providing highly qualified mentors for student teachers (93 percent of programs accept mentors chosen by a district without much vetting) and offering more in-school observation and feedback to gauge effectiveness in teaching and classroom management.
Still, this latest batch of research on teacher preparation programs validates the sometimes-feared adage in education that what is measured improves.
"We went into this with a lot of people saying 'You'll never get higher ed to pay attention to these findings,' but the improvements we observed show they are willing to make changes," said Walsh. "It's not as fast as anyone would like, but there are clear signs of progress."
If teacher training programs can be as eager to better themselves as most of the teachers I know, we should see the quality of preparation improve fairly quickly.