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3 Futures of Colleges of Education

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In thinking about the future of colleges of education, I am reminded of Frank Stockton's short story "The Lady or the Tiger." A hero faces a terrible choice. He is in an arena confronted by two doors. Behind one door is his true love; if he chooses that door, they live happily ever after. Behind the other door is a tiger and a rather different fate. There are four doors in my office, three in close proximity. More than one person on leaving has opened the door to a closet.

Prognosticating the future of colleges of education is akin to opening the wrong door. All of us, including those who say they are futurists, know as much about the future as our rear-view mirrors enable us to imagine, this being Marshall McLuhan's wonderful meta-phor. We can, of course, identify and project trend lines. We can describe what we perceive to be "sea changes." Short-term predictions can be right on the money, but projecting much beyond a few years is chancy. Nonetheless, I suggest what teacher education may be like in 20 years.

The best part about doing this is that one is free to speculate without dwelling on factors that deserve serious analysis. Suffice to say this essay is dedicated to those struggling to reform teacher preparation. These persons climb the slippery slope confronting leaders. They have demonstrated that leadership and risk-taking are synonymous. I admire their ability to make good things happen. Like them, I want a positive future for colleges of education. I want to be optimistic despite evidence to the contrary ...

I try the first door. I know instantly that I made the wrong choice. What I see is not a pretty sight. The tiger has already done its work. The old College of Ed is no longer a college. It is now a department or program scattered across the campus. Downsizing at universities separated programs with distinction from those with little promise. Hard-fought decisions determined which programs would thrive and which would wither. The criteria establishing distinction were bent in the direction of technology and commerce. The humanities and social sciences took a beating.

Colleges of education fared especially poorly. Twenty years of constriction in university resources fueled the subliminal anti-education bias on some campuses. The high priests chanted that colleges of education had little to offer. Status and elitism drove decisions as much as fiscal imperatives. The education faculty is much smaller than in the 1990s. Positions vacated by retirements were systematically transferred to more prestigious programs. Once teacher education was devalued, the need for related programs diminished as well. Selected graduate specialties that had ridden on the back of teacher education for decades were eliminated. University commitments to K-12 education were revealed to be shallow. Nonetheless, teacher preparation remains a university function since it can be done cheaply and meets a market need.

Because institutions change slowly, some universities did not eliminate their colleges of education. While downsized, they were not reduced to departmental or program level. A few prestigious colleges prospered because of their high status, but not necessarily because of their practices. Atrophy, however, characterized the majority.

Most education faculties perpetuated archaic instructional practices into the new century. Their colleges moved more and more into the backwater of the academic enterprise; demands for and opportunities to reform programs were ignored. Progressive faculty members were overwhelmed by the inertia of the majority. Too many faculty members refused to collaboratively link with the field. They did not create professional-development schools. They did not join in the cause of preserving public education. They did not produce the scholarship requisite to their professorial roles. They did not demonstrate the changes in organization, pedagogy, or assessment they hypocritically urged on K-12 education. They did not demonstrate what they know better than any other field: the pedagogies that make learning more than passive sitting, listening, and occasional speaking. The practicing profession finally gave up all hope that colleges of education would "practice what they preach."

This is not surprising given faculty and university reactions to change. Indeed, members of education faculties are no different from colleagues in other disciplines, but education has always been far more open to public scrutiny. The 1990s and beyond were not normal times, however. Efforts to privatize institutions became more than political rhetoric. The election of 1994 was replicated time and again over the next two decades. America's democratic values became ever more tarnished. With each new cycle of governmental downsizing, the commonweal became less and less a concern. The insistence that private organizations could do everything better reached the point where colleges of education became vestiges of what they once had been. Perhaps they would survive another decade or two, but their future beyond 2015 could only be described as bleak. These same trends threatened all of higher education, and schools of education were only the first major casualty.

By 2015, all teacher-educators are competing with alternative programs that supply half of the nation's teachers. Some alternatives are operated entirely by school systems and are nothing more than apprenticeships. Others are entrepreneurial. Some alternatives are blended with campus components because of the enlightened leadership of U.S. Secretary of Education Wendy Kopp. Whatever their form, alternative programs ended the monopoly enjoyed by colleges of education. The professors still employed pine for the good old days, the 1990s.

I exit quickly, but locking this door is not possible. Ample evidence exists that many education faculty members have not responded to reform mandates. They are not players in the many challenges directed at our profession. As much as teacher-educators would like to close this doorway, there are forces at work that will keep it open--forces that will herd our ranks through it. This is certainly the door that hides the tiger. I was not devoured only because of a lull in the feral carnage. Behind this door, teacher-educators are low on the food chain. They are on--not at--the dining table.

Opening the second door, I blanch. What I see is all too familiar. There is no sign of a tiger. Our ivy-covered and grimy college buildings are still standing, only a bit worse for wear. The undergraduate and graduate programs are humming along with students doing what students do, with professors grousing about the difficulties of being professors, classes and committees are meeting, proposals are offered, studies are conducted--all the things we now experience are much in evidence.

Computer and multimedia usage is more pronounced, and visitors are still obligated to see the latest incompatible equipment. Collaboration with schools is stronger, with the number of professional-development schools having increased over the years. Nonetheless, the majority of professors still refuse to work closely with colleagues in the field. Genuflecting to disciplinary groups is of higher value than serving the practicing profession. Scholarship remains particularistic and distant from the missions of the college. The national accrediting body that links teacher education with the practicing profession is still shunned, hence most education colleges are not nationally accredited. "Telling" rather than "doing" is still the pedagogical norm. The reform-oriented Holmes Group is in its fifth iteration and still debating its future. Indeed, every college of education belongs to a reform group of some type, thus equating membership with actual reform. The gap between the rhetoric of change and actual change has reached absurd levels. Everything is apparently much as it is today.

To those reforming teacher education, contemplating a future where so little has changed is devastating. Colleges of education are still not practicing what they preach in this scenario. While programs, productivity norms, and relationships with the field are "better," they are essentially the same. Efforts to reform colleges apparently achieved little over the years. The culture of colleges in 2015 is much like what we know in 1995.

To those who hoped that all of this reform nonsense would go away, what a wonderful future! It sounds comfortable. Our pensions are secure. What more could we ask? For much, much more. This is not my kind of future. It is not as bad as being eaten by a tiger, but a continuation of the status quo is flat-out depressing. The payoff for much hard work in effecting reforms seems minuscule. This door needs slamming and bolting. I do so and walk away muttering.

Opening the third door will not be a surprise. Here is the good news, especially for those who see themselves as reformers. As soon as we open this door, we are bathed in light. One is reminded of movies where, when God speaks, great beams of sunlight strike the lucky recipient of the Word, or of science-fiction movies where the spaceship hatch opens and brilliant light simultaneously reveals and hides the aliens therein. There is hope for all of us if education professors recognize that the only positive future likely to emerge is dependent on major changes in the pedagogy, staffing, scholarship, programs, and outreach activities of professional schools. The changes needed will dramatically challenge the fragmentation of learning that the American university has brought to fine fettle.

Reforms will occur: If we recognize that we must practice what we preach in our admissions, instructional, and assessment processes; if we move our clinical instruction into field settings, working side by side with interns as they prepare for our common craft; if we utilize technology to individualize the teaching/learning process; if we link ourselves tightly with the profession in the renewal of education; if we demonstrate what we know about teaching/learning/assessment--rather than merely replicating archaic university practices. Reform will truly be achieved if we say in concert that some teacher-education institutions should be out of the business rather than winking at standards as we have done for decades ... if, if, if.

The odds of most of these things happening are not good. We only have to look at our track record, to look in our rear-view mirrors. Yet, teacher-educators talk incessantly about change, perhaps more than any other group. We are well-meaning people and we talk about the need for change, we talk about the need for change, we talk about the need for change ... As the University of Toronto education dean Michael Fullan says, we have reduced "Ready, aim, fire" to "Ready, ready, ready." Despite our change rhetoric, we continue to replicate programs and activities more rooted 100 years in the past than even one year into the future. In this respect, we fully meet university norms.

Despite the odds, I join those who insist that the third doorway is the only one through which to pass. To be realistic, this door is not as large as the others. Not enough of us are ready to march through it. Indeed, change is painfully slow because those struggling to reform colleges of education must carry the weight of many not moving in this direction. Or do we? Perhaps the time has come to cut our losses? Not every college of education can have a positive future. In any college, some faculty members are ready to move, many others are not. Have we not acquiesced over and over again to the naysayers on the faculty? In our associations? Have we not tried to encourage innovation for decades? Why not admit that many in our field are incapable of changing practices and move on?

Those struggling to be responsive to changing needs--those are the faculties and institutions with a positive future. They are our hope. I hate to use a Ross Perot line, but it really is as simple as that. The progressives among us are hindered at every turn by colleagues unwilling or unable to change practices. They appear determined to drive us through less desirable doorways. They make it even harder to deal with the social and political forces confronting us.

There may be other possible futures, but I do not see them in my rear-view mirror. The best I can offer is three possibilities. The downsizing option is terrifying, not because of the fate of teacher education but because of the political and societal forces that would parallel our demise. The status quo doorway is the most discouraging. An analogy would be that of a jazz fan condemned to an eternity of Lawrence Welk music.

I am reminded of Scrooge, who asks whether what he has been shown by the ghost of Christmas future are things that must be, or things that can be changed. I believe that organizational and pedagogical changes are possible in colleges of education and that they must be greatly accelerated. If one looks back over the past 10 years, one gets a good sense of the next decade. For those who believe that the ferment of the past decade has revealed positive ways to fundamentally change higher-education practices, we can have a positive future. If we continue to acquiesce to those who find it impossible to respond to the need for reform, it is going to be a gloomy door through which most will pass. And this prognosis applies to other disciplines that may feel smug about education's travails.

The tiger is growling--and it ain't a pleasant sound.

Richard Wisniewski is the dean of education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the past president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. This is adapted from The Wizards of Odds: Leadership Journeys of Education Deans, a volume of essays to be published this year by the AACTE.

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