Harry Caudill disliked many things about Kentucky's education system, but perhaps nothing raised his hackles like the state's teacher colleges.
"Our teacher training system is hopeless," the author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area wrote in a 1984 letter to Mary and Barry Bingham, then-owners of The Courier-Journal in Louisville.
As a member of an education task force put together by Gov. Martha Layne Collins that year, Caudill said his major recommendation would be to abolish the education schools at all public universities. He said the same thing in 1960 when, as a state representative, he led a committee investigating the state's education system.
The heads of education graduates "are filled with educational nonsense," he wrote the Binghams. "Unless these schools are eliminated and education of teachers is turned over to the hard fields of mathematics, the sciences, languages, history and the like, education cannot improve. The teacher is the key to the whole problem and he is the least educated person coming out of the nation's educational system."
Caudill's concerns, although overstated, remain largely valid today, said Robert King, president of the state Council on Postsecondary Education.
Kentucky's education schools have overhauled their curriculum and raised standards, requiring exit exams, such as PRAXIS, to help ensure competency in basic content areas. But those standards and exams are "frankly not very substantial," King said.
The colleges of education also attract students who are ill-prepared, according to college-entrance exam data. A recent study by the Council on Postsecondary Education found that 30 percent of elementary education majors are unprepared in one or more subject areas, the highest percentage of 11 majors studied.
"We have as a country essentially made decisions about teachers and teaching, which include not being willing to pay teachers very well, which discourages a lot of otherwise talented people from going into teaching," King said. "We have structures in place that seem to be a consequence of not attracting the very best and brightest into the single most important function of our society."
The national average for teacher pay is $55,489. Kentucky has gradually moved up to 29th in the country over the past two decades, with an average teacher salary of $48,908 in 2012, according to the National Education Association.
Aside from higher pay, the best way to further improve teacher quality in Kentucky might be very different from what Caudill would expect, King said.
Since 2007, Kentucky's middle school and high school teachers have been required to major in the subject they will teach, and content-training isn't a major source of complaint on statewide teacher surveys. Instead, teachers say they don't get enough information about how to teach students.
"They are telling us in quite explicit terms they need more training in differentiated instruction, and how to use technology and content, how to work with disabled students, how to manage classrooms," King said.
Sam Evans, dean of the College of Education at Western Kentucky University, said education schools have historically been "cash cows" for higher education. But now that teacher preparation involves putting students in classrooms to learn on-site, "it's much more expensive to prepare teachers."
"The best analogy I can think of is a teaching hospital," Evans said. "We want students involved in schools from the very beginning."
At the moment, a group of WKU English and social studies majors who plan to teach are at Bowling Green High School two days a week.
"Those students will probably have 300 classroom hours before they're finished," he said.
By comparison, Evans said he made one classroom observation before starting his first job in the 1960s.
Casey Bayne, who is in her second year teaching social studies and science at Lexington's Crawford Middle School, said she received good preparation in content and teaching methods from Eastern Kentucky University, but her first year on the job held plenty of surprises.
"It wasn't until my senior year that I had meaningful time in the classroom," Bayne said.
Teacher education is in constant flux, said Robert Brown, executive director of the Education Professional Standards Board, which oversees teacher certification for the state.
In September, for example, the minimum GPA needed to get into a teacher-preparation program went from a 2.5 for most institutions to a 2.75, and prospective teachers are now required to have 200 hours in the field before they begin student teaching.
"Society is changing, more skills are being developed, and we're working with colleges of education to make sure teachers are getting the skills they need," Brown said.
He will help oversee a $200,000, two-year pilot program that the federal government awarded to Kentucky and six other states in October to help upgrade teacher education.
Among other things, the program will revise teacher-licensing standards, require students to spend more time in public schools before their student-teaching assignments, and set new accreditation standards for college education programs.
The program echoes some of King's ideas, which he is pitching to schools of education, about how to judge the effectiveness of teacher-training programs. One such proposal included in the new pilot program would use K-12 school data to measure and compare the effectiveness of teachers who graduated from specific schools of education.
"My hope is we can build the very finest teaching corps in the country," King said.
Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.