Mediocre? Not Us!

Education secretary's sharp critique of teacher ed leaves many programs saying he's right, just not about their campuses.
October 23, 2009

All colleges and graduate schools of education must do a better job of preparing future teachers for the classroom, Arne Duncan, secretary of education, said in a speech Thursday. Many leaders of teacher education programs said they agreed with his comments, but it was hard to find any who said they thought his criticisms applied to their institutions.

“By almost any standard, many if not most of the nation's 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom,” he told an audience of faculty members, students and teachers at Teachers College of Columbia University. “America’s university-based teacher preparation programs need revolutionary change -- not evolutionary tinkering.”

Duncan’s speech bore down on the colleges and graduate schools that prepare more than half the teachers in U.S. primary and secondary schools -- 60 percent of whom, by one count, entered the classroom feeling unprepared for the challenges that lay ahead -- and called on those programs to introduce more in-the-classroom training and better tracking of teacher performance and student outcomes.

Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former dean of Teachers College, said the speech “threw a lifeline to university-based teacher education programs” as more states and school districts are turning to other kinds of teacher certification programs to get bodies to the blackboard.

Though some might see the speech “only as a negative, with the secretary carping on schools of education, I see it as an opportunity schools are being given and should take advantage of,” Levine said. “It’s an extraordinary gift coming from Secretary Duncan.”

Many of Duncan’s observations piggybacked off Levine’s 2006 controversial report, “Educating School Teachers” (the source of the statistic that three of five teachers felt unprepared for their jobs), which accused schools of education of being “the Dodge City of the education world ... unruly and disordered.”

The controversy, to some degree, seems to have cooled down and turned into agreement that education schools need vast reforms, at least based on the reactions of a few teacher education experts who listened to Duncan’s speech.

Sharon Robinson, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), said she thought there was “a degree of criticism in what he’s saying and a degree of reality in what he’s saying, too -- plenty of these teacher education programs aren’t functioning as they need to be.”

Robinson had panned Duncan’s October 9 speech at the University of Virginia, "A Call to Teaching," calling it a rehashing of “shopworn criticisms of teacher preparation programs” and asking him to do a more thorough examination of programs in advance of Thursday’s speech.

Duncan on Thursday applauded AACTE and its 800 member institutions for trying to do a better job preparing teachers, something he didn’t do in his Virginia speech. He said that group and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) “are firmly behind the new drive to link teacher preparation programs to better student outcomes.”

Duncan didn't just list Columbia and Harvard among the institutions doing a good job preparing teachers. He also mentioned Emporia State University in Kansas, Alverno College in Wisconsin and Black Hills State University in South Dakota. To Robertson, that signaled he was "more willing to look at good programs rather than just focusing on the bad."

Robinson shrugged off Duncan’s assertion that “for decades, schools of education have been renowned for being cash cows for universities,” divisions that brought in money that was then reinvested into other parts of universities. Kenyon S. Chan, chancellor of the University of Washington Bothell, said education programs at his institution “actually cost us a lot of money.”

Brad Portin, director of Bothell’s education program, said Duncan’s speech didn’t reveal any “new news for us” and echoed many of the tropes from Levine’s study. His institution and the other two campuses in the University of Washington system, he stressed “are already doing a lot of the good things discussed in the speech.” The programs he oversees put future teachers into the classroom early on in their time as students and prepares them to work with children who are socioeconomically, racially and developmentally diverse.

Nonetheless, he said, “Duncan’s speech affirmed the ideas out there about preparing all our teachers to work with a very diverse student community” and bridged the “disconnect between what has traditionally happened on university campuses to prepare teachers and the field portion of the experience.”

Margaret A. Noe, dean of the College of Education at Southeast Missouri State University, said her institution was also doing a good job of preparing teachers for the classroom but conceded that there are plenty of teachers in schools across the country who were “ill-prepared for the classroom experience.”

Patrick Riccards -- CEO of Exemplar Strategic Consulting, which advises education groups, and author of the blog Eduflack -- said he thought schools of education needed to work on improving their self-awareness as Duncan and the Department of Education begin their charge to reshape American teacher education. “You’re not going to find a college of education that’s going to say 'we’re part of the problem,' ” he said. “People enter the field to try to help people and everyone wants to believe they’re part of the solution. You’d be hard pressed to find a dean who will stand up and say 'I’m not doing my job.' ”

But, he said, all institutions need to acknowledge there’s room for improvement. “We’re heard now for more than a decade about this looming teacher shortage as Baby Boomers retire – obviously the economy’s thrown that off a bit – but we still need to think about training more teachers and training them better.”

Robinson said the same.“We need to acknowledge all that’s required to meet the needs of the future,” she said, “and those programs that can’t do that need to close.”


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