A new worldwide chain of for-profit colleges started to go public with its plans last month for Whitney International University, which will offer a range of programs in numerous countries. At the time, Best Associates, the Dallas-based merchant bank that is creating Whitney, said it also had plans for teacher education in the United States.
Those plans are now starting to emerge -- and the American College of Education, as this effort will be called, represents a new model for training teachers. In fact, organizers of the teacher education program make no effort to hide their disdain for most programs that exist today.
"In my experience, the majority of education courses are not rigorous whatsoever. They typically are based on philosophical ideas and ideology, not the research we have on how children learn," said G. Reid Lyon, chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Lyon is leaving that position at the National Institutes of Health to develop the new teacher education programs, the first of which will debut in the fall.
"Teachers tell you now that everything they need to know, they learn on the job," Lyon said.
The American College of Education programs will have several features, he said: An emphasis on applying new research, educating cohorts of students from the same school district or preparing for jobs in the same school district, and regular work in schools so that new ideas are constantly tested in the classroom.
Lyon has taught neuroscience at Northwestern University and the University of Vermont before coming to the NIH, and he says that scientific rigor is what is needed in education programs.
"We know why kids learn to read or have problems, and what to do about them," he said. The American College "will have an evidence-based program that will constantly change as new information arrives."
Lyon's criticisms of teacher education come from personal experience. He took courses at the University of New Mexico and elsewhere so he could be certified as a teacher and see how education ideas are applied in classrooms. That experience led him to want to avoid the idea of having students serve as 'student teachers" during some portion of their training. Rather, he wants them to "apply ideas immediately."
And because students will be from the same school districts -- either already employees or future employees -- Lyon said that the program will be customized to focus on particular issues of importance to a given district. "Our emphasis will be on outcomes -- what teachers know and how they can apply it," he said.
The first programs offered by the American College of Education will be in suburban Chicago, and the college is currently seeking a campus and hiring faculty members. Lyon said that discussions are under way with several school districts about providing the first cohorts of students.
The college recently purchased the educational programs (but not the campus) of Barat College, which was once a small private college, was then merged into DePaul University, and which DePaul is shutting down this month. The American College is in the process of shifting accreditation and licensure from Barat's education programs to its own, and will start this fall with two master's degrees: one in curriculum and instruction and one in education leadership.
Carmyn Neely, senior vice president of the American College, said that she anticipated a "blended approach" in which half of the instruction was in person and half online. Based on discussions so far, Neely expects two to four cohorts this fall, each with 20-25 teachers. In the future, the program will likely expand to undergraduate teacher education (in which school districts could arrange cohorts of future teachers) and to other parts of the country.
Neely said that faculty members hired would probably be "seasoned practitioners" in the field.
Tuition rates have not been set yet, and some districts may decide to provide some financial support for participating students.
Lyon said that he viewed the future undergraduate programs as allowing school districts to identify talent early, work to train good teachers, and then improve the quality of their schools. He anticipates that some school districts will end up paying for the education of students who agree to teach after they graduate, potentially providing a college education for low-income students and a better teacher supply for schools.
The American College arrives on the teacher education scene at a time of growing interest from for-profit higher education in that sector. Kaplan University, for example, started offering online master's in education programs in October, and currently has about 150 students enrolled, with enrollments projected to increase by 35 percent next year.
David Harpool, dean of graduate students for Kaplan, said students end up paying $16,000 to $20,000 to complete a program within two years, more than they might pay at public colleges. "Students like the platform," he said, and the flexibility that the program provides. Most students are current teachers seeking advancement. Harpool said that Kaplan might expand into areas like alternate teacher certification, but that he doubted a push into the undergraduate level, given Kaplan's focus on adult students.
The interest of the for-profit colleges has not been lost on traditional providers of teacher education. Sharon P. Robinson, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said she thought it was "affirming" that so many businesses saw teacher education as "worthy of the investment."
"We'll see if they are any good," she said.
As to the criticisms made of traditional programs, Robinson said of the American College of Education comments: "They offer a rather breath-taking, broad brush indictment that is certainly unexpected and unfortunate. I certainly will be watching their venture with great interest. If they feel they have a better product, go prove it, just like the rest of us are attempting to do."