Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, paused in the middle of a speech to search for an elusive glass of water. His fellow panelist, Donna Cooper, secretary of planning and policy for the state of Pennsylvania, offered him a cup.
“I wouldn’t take that water,” said a person in the audience at the National Press Club in Washington, insinuating (jokingly) that Cooper might have spiked the drink.
“It’s mine that I wouldn’t take,” deadpanned Sharon Robinson, president and chief executive of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education.
Levine, an outspoken critic of the state of teacher education, appeared prepared for the ribbing. He is, after all, the lone author of a controversial report released Monday that calls for major changes in how and where future teachers are trained during their undergraduate and graduate educations.
More than half of teacher education graduates come from programs that have low admission and graduation standards, said Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. The faculty members who teach the future teachers are sometimes years removed from being in a classroom other than their own, and graduates often emerge ill-prepared to start their teaching careers, according to the report.
In “Educating School Teachers,” the second in a four-part series of policy papers on the education of future educators, Levine describes teacher education as a "chaotic" field largely lacking in uniform standards and accountability. The first report, "Educating School Leaders," was released in 2005.
Levine is hardly the first academic to dish on teacher education, a field that has been criticized for its lack of serious scholarship and proven results. Earlier this year, AACTE held a press conference inside the Capitol to dispel what Robinson said are the myths about teacher education programs.
For his latest report, Levine and a team of researchers visited 28 colleges with teacher education programs and surveyed deans, faculty, alumni and principals. Levine based his analysis on those responses, as well as criteria including school mission, curriculum and faculty composition.
According to Levine's report, more than three of five alumni of teacher education programs surveyed said that their schools didn't prepare them to cope with the realities of the profession. The report indicates that secondary school principals generally gave the education schools low grades in training students on how to handle diverse classrooms.
Levine found that the nation's elite institutions are not putting enough emphasis on teacher education and need financial incentives from states and the federal government to create or expand their programs. Too many programs are housed in regional, non-flagship public universities that have higher faculty-to-student ratios and faculty with lesser credentials, the report says.
Levine added that programs that are shown to be ineffective should be closed, and that those that produce prepared graduates should be expanded. "Many of the programs that should be closed will be found among the Masters I granting universities (the Carnegie classification group that includes the smaller public colleges), and expanded programs among the research universities and doctoral extensive ones," the report says.
Calling that part of Levine's proposal "elitist," Robinson, the AACTE president, said it's unwise to abandon programs at the colleges that produce the greatest number of teachers.
“Like other professions, education must rely more heavily on the less selective institutions to build the bulk of its work force, incorporating the growing first-generation college-going populations,” Robinson said in a statement. "If we intend to overcome the teacher shortage and produce the education work force that the nation needs, preparation must be accessible and affordable."
Levine said many of the education schools are merely "cash cows" that are forced to enroll too many students and lower admission standards. Robinson said that she agrees with Levine that colleges need to stop the practice of taking money generated from those colleges and dispersing it to other departments.
Levine's proposal also calls for education schools to adopt a five-year model in which students major as an undergraduate in a discipline other than education and finish with a yearlong master's degree in education. He pointed to the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education as a college that uses this model and emphasizes pedagogical research.
Constantine W. Curris, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said in a statement that Levine's proposal of five-year programs at elite institutions isn't financialy feasible for students.
"At a time when the nation is concerned about the amount of student indebtedness and repeated studies indicate that tuition costs are impeding access, the Levine recommendations would entail even greater indebtedness for would-be teachers," Curris said.
Rick Hess, a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said that while the report is on target in its assessment of the need for more rigorous curriculums, it might not make sense to make an integrated five-year curriculum the norm when many 18 year olds aren't ready to commit to becoming teachers.
In the report, Levine calls out the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education for having insufficiently rigorous guidelines. NCATE has come under fire for various issues relating to its standards. Levine said his research shows that there appears to be no difference in classroom performance for teachers who were trained in NCATE-accredited programs and those who were not.
Levine also said he would like every state to develop a data collection system that allows it to track an education student's academic progress. (He pointed out that a number of states already do this.)
Arthur E. Wise, president of NCATE, said in a statement that he agrees with Levine's assertion that performance-based accreditation should be emphasized, and that NCATE has already moved to develop such standards, which he said are now more demanding.
Wise said that the report fails to mention that NCATE is voluntary and that colleges are free to opt out. He added that many of the top schools – such as Stanford and Levine's former institution, Teachers College -- are accredited by NCATE.
One of the NCATE-accredited education schools is Alverno College, in Milwaukee, which was mentioned by Levine in the report as a model program. The college expects students to do extensive field work and demands that those who don't meet the minimum standards retake courses.
Levine said that education schools should embrace the fact that they are professional schools and make clinical experience a priority from the start.
Responding to criticism that his report is a regurgitation of past education school critiques, Levine said: “This report is written with tremendous optimism. We’ve heard some of these issues in the past and we haven’t acted on them."