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The Hillsdale Approach to Teacher Education

Robert C Hanna
Hillsdale College


Robert C HannaRobert C. Hanna is the associate Professor of Education, Hillsdale College.



The following is adapted from a speech delivered at a Hillsdale College seminar in Rancho Mirage, California, on February 18, 2003.


Hillsdale College was founded as an independent liberal arts college in 1844. Its Mission Statement reads in part, “By training the young in the liberal arts, Hillsdale College prepares students to become leaders worthy of that legacy.” Throughout the years, the faculty, administration and Board of Trustees have taken this statement one step further by preparing only the most qualified students to become leaders who teach the liberal arts within the elementary and secondary grades.

Hillsdale College’s Teacher Education Program is fully approved by the Michigan State Department of Education, as are 31 other programs throughout Michigan. However, many of Hillsdale’s program requirements exceed state standards and thereby make the program unique.

First, no students are ever permitted to major in education. Our students major among the disciplines of art, biology, chemistry, English, French, German, history, Latin, mathematics, music, physical education, physics, science and Spanish. The choice of minors we permit is slightly expanded to include computer science and early childhood education, with early childhood education requiring the addition of a minimum of two liberal arts minors, one of which must be English, history, mathematics or science. As a result, our students learn much more about what they will teach than if they took most of their college credits in education courses. At Hillsdale College, “how to teach” has never necessitated the credit hours comparable to those demanded by an academic major.

Only the most qualified students are accepted into our Teacher Education Program. Specifically, students must achieve and maintain a minimum cumulative grade-point average of 3.00 on a 4.00 scale. (Students with a GPA between 1.70 and 3.00 can petition to be admitted to the Program by the College’s three academic Deans, the Provost, and the Certification Officer, but such approval is by no means automatic. Students can be instructed to reapply when they meet the 3.00 requirement.) No courses which lead to, or are a part of, the Teacher Education Program are ever audited, so that an accurate GPA is always calculated. Students whose GPAs decline below these standards while they are in the program are not permitted to student teach, and therefore cannot become state-certified teachers.

No students are exempt from any courses on the basis of placement tests or on any other basis. This standard applies equally to core liberal arts courses, teacher education courses, and major and minor credit hour requirements. In other words, students who can demonstrate proficiency in an area of study are simultaneously demonstrating readiness for learning at a higher level of study in that area, whether for the benefit of the students they will be teaching or for the benefit of their own liberal arts education.

Our small number of education courses includes: “Foundations of Education,” “Explicit Phonics Reading Instruction,” “The Teaching of Reading to the Exceptional and ESL (English as a Second Language) Child,” and “Contemporary Problems in Education.” In general, the problems we identify in the latter course are the solutions advocated by other teacher education programs.

Two other ways in which Hillsdale exceeds state standards involve student teaching. While all student teachers in Michigan must spend a minimum of 180 hours in a school, our student teachers must spend a minimum of 180 hours teaching within their teaching majors and/or minors in a school. Then, when our students have reached the 180 hours, they continue adding on more teaching hours until the semester has ended. Our students spend an entire semester in their host schools, Monday through Friday, following their schools’ hours and days of operation.

Although the Michigan State Department of Education does not designate specific books that future teachers must read and study, we do. In our education courses, students read from such great works of antiquity as Homer’s Odyssey, Plato’sRepublic, Virgil’s Aeneid, Cicero’s De Officiis, and modern books including Talks to Teachers on Psychology by William James, How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler,Why Johnny Can’t Read by Rudolf Flesch, and Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong by William Kilpatrick.

Our education courses also include examples from the K-12 content of Hillsdale Academy, the K-12 model school of Hillsdale College. Hillsdale Academy’s curriculum was designed by two of the College’s education professors, both experienced elementary and secondary school teachers and administrators. The College’s Provost employs a headmaster who ensures that the curriculum’s scope and sequence are implemented. This benefits not only the children enrolled at Hillsdale Academy, but also the students in our Teacher Education Program, who are able to observe the teaching of this curriculum by Academy teachers who have already completed Hillsdale College’s Teacher Education Program or who are in the process of doing so. In the words of a state evaluator of our Program, “The fine cooperation between the [College’s Teacher Education Program] … and Hillsdale Academy is laudable and a fine model of the type of collaboration other schools and school districts desire.” This includes placing our student teachers at Hillsdale Academy every semester.

In addition to the approval of the Michigan State Department of Education, the effectiveness of Hillsdale’s Teacher Education Program is recognized by other independent sources. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan, writes, “[W]hile Hillsdale may be virtually alone in its diagnosis of the modern educational disease, it is confident that the future of teaching lies in the practices of the past.” “The National Monitor of Education” in Alamo, California, writes, “The Hillsdale approach to teacher training is solid meat and potatoes, a practical approach as opposed to theoretical, pie-in-the-sky doctrines often advocated in teacher training programs. There would be few, if any, failures of new teachers in the classroom if, as student teachers, they had the opportunity to participate in programs similar to Hillsdale’s.”

As of this writing, Hillsdale College has a six-year 100 percent placement rate for those students who graduate with a teaching certificate and seek to start their teaching careers the following school year. According to the College registrar, if the students admitted to the Teacher Education Program were collectively considered as having one and the same major, the Teacher Education Program would be designated as having more students than any other major that the College offers. Some of these students are placed in the very schools, public and private, in which they complete their student teaching. Will Carleton Academy, a local charter school, hires our students, as does Hillsdale Academy. This is not to suggest that all of our students teach in Michigan; they have been recruited from as far away as Arizona. On a related note, our education professors have advised schools from North Carolina to Nebraska to California on how to identify competent teachers and how to retrain those just out of college.Hillsdale College also operates a Center for Teacher Excellence, which provides full scholarships so that teachers from across the nation can improve their curricular content and classroom effectiveness. While Hillsdale College’s Teacher Education Program graduates tens of liberal arts teachers each year as opposed to the hundreds of education majors turned out by state universities, our teachers do not need to be retrained and are effective in the classroom starting on their first day.

We welcome visitors to all of our education courses on campus, and we can arrange for guest observations of our student teachers off-campus. We also keep Hillsdale Academy open for tours, and we make those responsible for the Academy’s curriculum available for consultation.

The faculty, administrators and Board of Trustees of Hillsdale College actively implement the College’s Mission Statement. By preparing liberal arts teachers, Hillsdale College’s Teacher Education Program is always providing the next two generations, that is, teachers and their students, with the wisdom and value of a liberal arts education.