Don't Give Up on Universities

Last week, the New York State Board of Regents adopted a new policy that will enable non-universities, including organizations such as Teach for America, to create teacher education programs, with the Board of Regents granting the resulting master's degrees to teachers.

April 26, 2010

Last week, the New York State Board of Regents adopted a new policy that will enable non-universities, including organizations such as Teach for America, to create teacher education programs, with the Board of Regents granting the resulting master's degrees to teachers.

This move comes at a time when criticism of university-based teacher education programs is mounting and an increasing number of efforts, like the new Regents approach, seek to compete with or replace traditional programs entirely. While I have some sympathy with the frustration behind these policies, and while I do believe that we can learn from new alternative programs and should support the best of them, I think the easy tendency to seek to replace rather than strengthen university-based programs is a serious mistake.

Despite a barrage of criticism, including some from my own research, improving the current system is a step the nation has not been seriously attempted. It would be better for New York to put their education schools on notice, monitor progress, and shut them down in favor of other alternatives if they fail.

This was the key recommendation of my 2006 study, Educating School Teachers. In that report, a team of researchers and reporters found that, despite some excellent programs nationwide, most teacher preparation programs have low admissions and graduation standards, inadequate curriculums, disconnects between academic and clinical instruction, and alumni who say they were not adequately prepared for the classroom. But the study also set forth a method of improvement that included setting clear requirements and timelines for colleges and universities. If their teacher-prep programs did not improve within the given timeline, they would be shut down. Evidence of poor performance would include criteria such as low admission and graduation standards, low passage rates on standardized teacher tests, and poor performance by students compared with peers in their graduates’ classes. Marginal programs would be monitored and reviewed regularly by the state to ensure improvement with the promise of closing those as well if they failed to make progress. New York State’s latest effort avoids working to improve the schools that educate most of the state’s teachers. To build a whole new sector instead is to give up, prematurely, on schools of education.

There are other crucial reasons not to give up on education schools. Four years ago, the board of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation decided to launch a fellowship program to enhance teacher education in America. A key question was which teacher education organizations to focus on: universities, alternative routes or a combination. We chose universities, for five very pragmatic reasons.

First, more than 90 percent of all teachers are prepared at universities. In contrast, the alternatives tend to be small hothouses. This is the Willie Sutton principle: Asked why he robbed banks, his answer was, "Because that’s where the money is." The capacity of universities so dwarfs every other competitor that it makes sense to try to fix them first, and makes focusing only on ways to end run them misguided policy.

Second, change at universities is self-sustaining. In contrast to many of the alternative teacher education programs, which require annual philanthropic dollars to continue their programs, university teacher education is self-funding. Students pay tuition. Universities are among the few not-for-profit teacher education institutions with proven business models.

Third, universities, unlike most alternative producers, have content expertise. Research shows that teachers’ mastery of content — math, science, language and the other fields that are taught in schools — raises teacher performance and student learning. Universities are the only teacher educators with arts and science colleges in which future teachers can learn the subjects they will teach in addition to the pedagogy associated with teacher preparation. To assume that aspiring teachers have mastered all the content they need prior to starting their teacher preparation program, as many of the alternatives do, is to separate the "what to teach" and "how to teach" elements of teaching in a destructive way.

Fourth, the research on teacher preparation gives little compelling evidence that university-based teacher education is substantially better or worse than the alternatives.

Fifth, both universities and schools are in the midst of adapting to dramatic global change. As a consequence of demographic, economic, and technological shifts, universities and schools — like so many of our social institutions, including government, health care, the media, and financial institutions — appear broken because they were built for a different time. All of them need to be repaired, through no fault of their own.

For these reasons, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has deliberately chosen to work with, not around, education schools. And those schools now working with us in three states (to date) — Indiana, Michigan and Ohio — are demonstrating that they can change. We have seen universities move from a mostly on-campus program to a truly clinical program in which aspiring teachers spend most of their time in K-12 schools observing master teachers, teaching under supervision, and melding theory and practice. We have seen universities break down the liberal arts/education divide and engage discipline-specific arts and sciences professors in mentoring novice teachers.

In New York State and nationwide, we should likewise give university-based teacher education programs the support and impetus to improve. There is simply too much at stake to abandon them.


Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and president emeritus of Teachers College, Columbia University.


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