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Charter Colleges of Education

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Many schools and colleges of education are altering their programs in response to policy mandates and public criticisms. The work is piecemeal and the pace is slow. But the good news is that there is a reform movement in teacher education. Even those frustrated by its slowness can point to a growing number of restructuring efforts. Because both the needs of public education and the pressures on schools of education are so great, however, this "rising tide that lifts all boats" pace of reform has to be accelerated.

This can be accomplished by the creation of what I call "charter colleges of education." Because the charter movement in K-12 schools, which seeks to relieve some of the normal regulatory mechanisms to advance reform, is controversial, debating the issue in the context of higher education may inevitably mix apples and oranges. So, while "charter colleges" best describes what I propose, the title is less important than the goal: to enable some schools and colleges of education to, in Linda Darling-Hammond's phrase, "go over the top" in respect to new practices and curricula. These institutions then would serve as demonstrations of what can be accomplished when an academic training ground moves beyond superficial changes. Unless we challenge assumptions about how colleges of education are organized and staffed, how they deliver instruction, and how they work with the field--along with tired rationalizations for why changes are impossible--reform in teacher education will not be achieved.

Much is already known about change processes and the restructuring of colleges. Hence, an agreement to create a charter college of education would essentially orchestrate what is known and actually do it. The alternative is to continue skirting the edges of reform, to acquiesce to the status quo because change is hard. While the specific attributes of a charter college would be an open agenda, some broader characteristics seem self-evident. Here are three:

  • Best practice, innovative pedagogy, and high expectations must characterize the restructured college of education.
  • Strong linkages must exist with collaborating school systems so that "simultaneous renewal" is taking place.
  • Performance outcomes and accountability for high standards must exceed current norms.

Charter colleges may have other goals. A precise definition must be left to the particular institution or institutions designated. Some states may want more than one charter college, and other innovative options are possible. Certainly there is no dearth of ideas on which to develop new practices. John I. Goodlad's National Network for Educational Renewal; the Holmes Group, now reconstituted as the Holmes Partnerships; the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future--these groups and dozens of pilot programs provide guidance. But while reform groups are moving in positive directions, their efforts underscore the painfully slow nature of academic change. Transforming decades of traditional practices is labor-intensive and fraught with controversy. This is especially true within universities, which may not be changing at the same pace or in the same directions.

To do anything as bold as creating a charter college requires risk-taking, and risk-taking is not what most universities are about.

A charter college would have the authority to restructure its organization, alter its curricula, and reallocate its resources within a specified time period. This would require a level of commitment not often found in institutions of higher education. And a test of that commitment, as well as the key to creating charter colleges, might be the phrase "by a date certain." A true charter college will never emerge unless all parties concerned set a firm date for its transformation. Anything beyond a limited time frame for these changes guarantees only modest reforms.

And academic institutions, as we all know, require years to move from the initiation of an idea to its implementation. In a social system where professors are lucky to introduce one new course during their professional lifetimes, large-scale or accelerated changes are viewed as dangerous. To do anything as bold as creating a charter college requires risk-taking, and risk-taking is not what most universities are about. So we should expect that an idea as open-ended as the charter-college concept will generate positive responses only from segments of the faculty and the profession.

But the viability of this idea lies in the fact that many colleges of education have a core of dedicated, strong faculty members prepared to take risks. They want to alter curricula, reorganize their work lives, increase ties with public schools, and conduct scholarship on all these responsibilities. They usually are not in the majority, however, and are often frustrated by the rigidity of university procedures and by their colleagues.

Of the many obstacles that may slow adoption of the charter-college concept, state regulations are probably the easiest to modify. State departments of education have given flexibility to campuses that request program variations. And because state regulatory bodies attract even heavier criticism than campuses, they have a stake in demonstrating responses to those criticisms. Concerns about what colleges of education do (or are not doing) provide opportunities for regulatory bodies to coalesce around an institution that says it will demonstrate new practices by a date certain.

The truly formidable obstacle is lurking within the structure and traditions of universities. The elaborate mechanisms of organization, governance, review, and approval that characterize such institutions were designed to ensure quality. But in operation, they are often dysfunctional. They make it as difficult as possible to reorganize curricula, to change reward systems, to modify the uses of time, or to alter collegiate structures. They mainly serve to enhance disciplines and to protect rigid barriers between them. The irony here is that campus rhetoric would lead one to believe that a commitment to change is emblematic of the American university. The gap between words and reality is vast. Few institutions are less willing to examine their practices, despite the plethora of committees currently drafting plans for the new millennium.

How, then, can we seriously expect some campuses to respond to this challenge? Part of the answer can be found in American higher education's expressed commitment to improving K-12 education. The education college affords the prime route to that end. Progressive deans and faculty members already are working with like-minded teachers and principals. Pockets of reform-minded faculty members exist in disciplines beyond colleges of education. And many states have policy leaders seeking ways to accelerate education reforms. Linking these groups is the key to the creation of a charter college.

State and institutional politics vary, so the entry point for discussions could be at the university-president level, the collegiate level, the governor's level, or simultaneously in concert with other stakeholders. Wherever talks originate, however, their resulting agreement should be aimed at enabling a college to revise or abandon current practices and to demonstrate widely supported new practices in teaching, assessment, and professional outreach as rapidly as possible.

The commitment of the head of the campus is critical. But even a president or chancellor can't shortstop all the obstacles on the typical campus. What these leaders can do is work with the faculty councils and review groups that normally approve changes. They can ease the process and create an atmosphere that says: "We will not play the 'watch and see' game. We will help make this happen."

Never has there been a greater concentration of deans and faculty in schools of education prepared to move on a reform agenda.

Trustees also must be part of the agreement from the start, which is something only the president can bring about. Doing that would run counter to the usual cautious approach to change, where only finished products are brought to trustees. University trustees, along with the president, faculty leaders across the campus, the dean and faculty of education, and the appropriate state agencies and boards, all need to agree to the basic concept of a redesigned college. The governor, too, must sign on and must sign the compact identifying an institution as the "charter college of education" in that state.

How deep are the reforms needed? They will require the reorganization of a college. They will require staff changes. They will require "sunseting" selected programs. They will require changes in course content and delivery systems. They will require an insistence on demonstrated competencies. In short, they will require changed behaviors on the part of faculty, staff, administrators, and students. A charter college would not simply promise to do good deeds. It would demonstrate best practice and new levels of expectations.

This scenario is revolutionary by university standards. The powers of tradition and inertia on campus are formidable. Good practices, of course, should and will be preserved. But in conceiving these charter colleges, a good maxim would probably be the bolder the idea, the better. Only bold ideas seriously challenge what people have done for decades. The academy long ago learned how to accommodate most calls for change. Innovative programs that once shone brightly died as their impact was eroded by the mainstream. We simply must move beyond pilot projects.

But no one should assume institutional change to be a happy voyage for all concerned. People find ways to slow things down. Some sabotage or ignore the process. Turf battles emerge. Leadership roles are challenged and changed. These reactions are to be expected. What should be different in this instance is the once-in-a-professional-lifetime opportunity for people of all persuasions to offer their best ideas for constructing a new path. And that new path would be sanctioned by the governor of the state, the president and trustees of the university, the heads of the graduate school and other academic units, the members of review councils, an accreditating agency, by all those concerned with reforming colleges of education and serving public education.

This is an idealistic vision, of course. It requires aligning, metaphorically, the sun, the moon, and the stars. While the odds are great, the possibility of achieving such an alignment is also great. Never has there been a greater concentration of deans and key faculty members in schools of education prepared to move on a reform agenda. They may not be in the majority, but they are a far more significant group than ever before in the history of teacher education. Governors have espoused the need for serious changes in higher education. Reformers have created models from which to draw inspiration. University presidents have recognized that the future of higher education is dependent on demonstrations of innovation. The charter college of education is a vehicle for linking these aspirations.

The immediate goal should be the creation of several charter colleges across the country. Already, one charter school of education has been announced. California State University-Los Angeles embarked on such a plan two years ago, with one of its features being the linkage between the school of education and a charter public elementary school in Los Angeles.

As one long associated with the world of teacher education, I know that this proposal rests on the efforts of colleagues who long have fought the good fight. I join with them and with others who believe that this is the time to push forward. If not now, it is hard to conceive of a time it will ever be possible. The need for charter colleges of education is clear. They can be created--by a date certain--by faculties, deans, presidents, and state officials bold enough to say the time is now.


Richard Wisniewski is the director of the Institute for Educational Innovation at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He served as the dean of education at Tennessee and at the University of Oklahoma and is a past president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. He serves on the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future.

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