Just recently (September 18, 2006) the former President of Teacher’s College, Arthur Levine, released a report, Educating School Teachers. As Education Week noted in a September 20th article, Levine’s findings paint teacher education “as a troubled (field) in which a majority of aspiring teachers are educated in low-quality programs that do not sufficiently prepare them for the classroom.”
Levine’s well-written, hard-hitting thesis is timely given that “the nation is deeply divided about how to prepare large numbers of high-quality teachers.” Drawing on a range of data I have suggested previously that “this rancorous debate (often) becomes a contest between those who want to protect the current teacher education monopoly owned by university faculties, and those who want to jettison the traditional teacher preparation provided by slow-moving colleges of education and out-of-touch professors.” Levine agrees, noting that “there is a schism over the how’s and when’s of teacher education between those who believe teaching is a profession like law or medicine, requiring a substantial amount of education before an individual can become a practitioner, and those who think teaching is a craft like journalism, which is learned principally on the job.”
For the most part, Levine’s findings are on point. Built on four years of case studies, surveys, and the extant research literature, he claims that teacher educators “lack agreement” about what they should produce, and programs at the 1200 colleges and universities often consisting of a “confusing patchwork.”
He briefly offers equally harsh words for the proliferating alternative certification programs that place new recruits into high need schools and classrooms without the necessary preparation. The federal government’s push for Teach for America-like on-the-job training ignores both “quality ceilings and floors.”
Granted, Levine’s recommendations — like measuring teacher education by focusing on student achievement, turning teacher preparation into a clinically based, rigorous 5-year enterprise, and closing failing programs — are noteworthy. But they are nothing new. All one has to do is read the 20-year old reports of the Holmes Group or even James Conant’s 40-year old book, The Education of American Teachers.
However, the report’s controversy rests on two conclusions — education schools must recruit more academically-abled students and the current system of professional accreditation is so flawed that it needs to be discarded. Both conclusions warrant some discussion.
First, education schools have grave difficulties, at no fault of their own, in attracting the highest-scoring students. They instead often attend competitive universities that can cost as much as $180,000 and open doors into any number of high paying professions and fields. As any economist would claim, with a starting salary of less than $30,000, teachers cannot afford the high price of an elite education. Levine, in an earlier essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, poignantly paints the real picture on what keeps academically-abled students from becoming teachers: “Education schools do not determine the salaries, the status, or the working conditions of teachers. Only states, localities, and school systems can change the pool of people entering the education profession.”
Second, Levine’s report claims that elite universities do not seek professional accreditation from the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, and as such, the field should not require it. However, unlike in other professions, teachers do not have to graduate from a professionally accredited school in order to practice their trade. Levine’s report ignores the stark fact that education schools volunteer to have their programs examined externally, and now can choose among two different varieties (adding more confusion to the field). Also, Levine sidesteps the fact that of top five education schools he cited as exemplary, three are NCATE accredited. Professional accreditation in teacher education is clearly not a perfect quality control mechanism, but the process has enforced standards. Last Spring 23 percent of the colleges who tried to meet NCATE standards failed to do so. Research cited by Levine shows that graduates of NCATE institutions are more likely to stay in teaching longer, and thus generate higher student achievement gains over time.
Like Levine I am smitten with Deborah Ball’s (education school dean at the University of Michigan) “lucid and compelling explanation of (the) teacher education curriculum” — one that includes an “enriched” major with a specialty in teaching content to diverse learners. I would add a complementary residency designed and adapted to the diverse recruits (traditional and alternative) needed to effectively staff our nation’s schools. NCATE, if made mandatory, could play a major role in the quality control. The federal government and states could play an even more important role by ensuring that those teacher education recruits who pass muster are paid substantially more. Then we might find our way to guarantee a caring, qualified, well-supported, and effective teacher for every student.