Last week the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education released model state legislation  to create teaching fellowships for high school seniors willing to teach in high-need schools. Their approach includes a four-year college scholarship, accompanied by professional development, in exchange for a commitment to teach in a high-need school for four years. It is an excellent idea — and it could go farther still.
AACTE’s proposed approach rests on the notion that colleges and universities are still the best place to prepare teachers. For the past 20 years critics of teacher education, blaming gaps in student achievement on university-based teacher preparation, have touted alternative routes to teaching like “boot camps” and certification programs offered by non-university providers. They cite studies—including one that I published in 2005  -- indicating that ed school graduates feel ill-prepared for the classroom realities of teaching.
Yet colleges and universities still prepare nearly 90 percent of the nation’s teachers. We cannot abandon them, not for nostalgic but for very pragmatic reasons. To produce enough new teachers to meet schools’ needs over the next several decades, the nation must rely on institutions of higher education to prepare them. Plus unlike other teacher education providers, universities have faculty in the content or disciplinary areas in which students will teach.
For the past six years, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has sponsored and promoted programs comparable to that being proposed by AACTE  in five states — Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, and another state soon to be announced. We have learned that it is indeed possible to recruit top students to teaching positions in high-need schools with fellowships of $30,000. Their retention rate exceeds 95 percent after three years. The teacher candidates range from published scientists to award-winning engineers to recent graduates with high academic honors.
The Woodrow Wilson experience indicates that master’s programs are more effective than the baccalaureates proposed by AACTE. They are one-quarter the cost, four times faster, and have greater appeal to career changers.
The Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship also demonstrates that fellowships can be used as a vehicle for strengthening university-based teacher education programs. The 28 universities participating in the Fellowship have or are in the process of developing clinically intensive programs in partnership with local school districts, integrating disciplinary and pedagogical instruction and taught by clinical and academic faculty, including three years of post-graduation mentoring.
The AACTE proposal focuses on states, which Woodrow Wilson found to be the highest leverage target for such fellowships. Constitutionally, education is a state responsibility and states are the primary school funder. They also approve teacher education programs and set licensure requirements for teachers. In a time in which teacher hiring is down, small numbers of teachers can make an extraordinary difference if concentrated in a single state. For instance, in Indiana approximately 100 teachers are hired annually in the STEM fields, the highest-need hiring area.
There is an extraordinary opportunity to carry out the AACTE proposal today. Rather than conducting a campaign in 50 state capitols, a more effective approach might be to turn to Washington. Shifting to a single state-based program of the type that AACTE proposes promises far greater impact than the myriad of small, low-impact programs funded by Title II of the Higher Education and Elementary and Secondary Education Acts.With ESEA reauthorization in the offing, with bipartisan interest in teacher quality, and with the emphasis on local control that the AACTE approach makes possible, this model could stand a better chance than many in the current contentious environment.
In fact, it is possible to go even further than the AACTE proposal to strengthen teacher education. To qualify for new Title II funding, states could be asked to adopt data systems which would assess the effectiveness of graduates of the state’s ed schools in raising student achievement. Using this data, states would be expected to close failing teacher education programs and employ the fellowships to support top students to attend top-rated teacher education programs.
These students would be required to teach for three years in high-need schools in state. Our research shows that a teaching commitment any longer than three years is a barrier to top students applying — a psychological more than a true limitation. Even though Woodrow Wilson has an 80 percent retention rate after three years, the notion of a four-year program plus four years of service is formidable for high school seniors — a significant portion of their life.
The value of a state-by-state model like AACTE’s is that it can be tailored to local needs and implemented on a scale that is sustainable. If it is linked to incentives for institutional change that can also expand campus by campus and state by state, and if it is made the focus of federal efforts, this kind of approach could make real inroads not only in recruiting new teachers, but in preparing them for long and successful careers.
Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.