On July 14, readers posed questions on a variety of topics to Arthur E. Levine, who is stepping down as the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, later this month, after 12 years of service. Below are excerpts from the discussion.
Question: When the U.S. Department of Education asked students if they find school engaging or interesting, only 21 percent said yes. How can we combat this?
Levine: We have all seen children successfully engaged in learning when they play computer games or surf the Net. The historic model of school is, I am afraid, growing old and less useful. Let’s take the pedagogical techniques that seem to work in computers and other venues and apply them to teaching our children.
Question: When you talk about the changing role of school, is the conversation about reactionary responses to episodic studies, or a proactive change based upon a clear vision of the needs of teachers, students, communities, businesses, and the nation for the 21st century?
Levine: When I speak about the changing role of school, I mean a number of different things. As an information society, we have shifted our focus from assuring common processes to assuring common outcomes. Learning is eclipsing teaching. This is revolutionary.
In an information society, our expectations for schools have changed as well. Low-education jobs are moving abroad. Expanding job fields require more advanced skills and knowledge. There are no longer jobs for dropouts. States are demanding that students receive the most advanced educations in history, and that all students be learners. Accountability is now driving education.
I also think our school system is an anachronism. I suspect it will fall under the pressure to provide an individualized education to dramatically increasing numbers of students labeled learning-disabled, as well as a mass education to all others. These twin activities will break the bank. As brain research advances and we learn more and more about how children learn, and as technology permits the creation of software for each learning style, schools will become increasingly individualized in the education they offer. Students will advance by mastery rather than age. The teacher will become diagnostician, prescriptor, and assessor.
Question: Do you feel we have arrived at that point when the faith-based community will be invited to the table of public education reform, with the purpose of establishing a more complete dialogue that addresses the wholeness of student learning?
Levine: I am an educational agnostic. I don’t believe the name “public education” guarantees quality, nor do I believe that faith-based education ensures quality. I would have anyone sit at the table who can demonstrate his or her school achieves excellence in student learning without teaching or promoting antidemocratic values or behaviors.
I suspect that in the years ahead the distinction between public and private schools will blur. There is a Catholic school in my neighborhood in which a majority of the students are non-Catholic kids of color from the local area. In contrast, the public schools in Scarsdale, N.Y., cost over a million dollars to attend, since that is the cost of buying a home in the area. The question for me is which school is public and which is private?
Question: I will be in residence at an Ed.D. program this September. What do you think the future holds for Ed.D. recipients? I am slightly concerned that after all my hard work the degree may be phased out by colleges and universities.
Levine: After a year and a half of encouraging education schools to replace the Ed.D. with an M.E.A., I am confident that education schools will not do this. The Ed.D. is the union card for a superintendency despite the rise in hiring of nontraditional candidates. I still recommend that students who want to become superintendents get an Ed.D. or Ph.D.
Question: The education system increasingly is pushing solely academic subjects, but we know that not all students will make it to college. Many don’t meet success after graduation because schools are not preparing them for the future by teaching skills. Has the system failed these students?
Levine: I think the system has failed children in two ways. One is by establishing separate and unequal school systems for low-income and more-affluent children. The former too often receive an education that assumes they will not succeed and is substandard to ensure that. It is a pity that no major urban school system has successfully been turned around in a 20-year school reform movement.
The second way is that America has failed to develop the vocational education that exists in countries like Germany. The result is that students whose strengths are not traditionally academic but more vocational are not given the education that will allow them to succeed.
Question: What are your thoughts about providing a national curriculum for professional development of principals and educational leaders? Should corporate involvement in such matters be a concern, or just part of the plan for improvement? And second, what are the top three actions high schools should take to close the achievement gap?
Levine: I am a pragmatist regarding professional development: Show me anything that works in promoting student learning and I will support it enthusiastically, whether created by a for-profit or a not-for-profit.
Top three for me are recruit a superb principal; engage in research on student performance so that achievement can be tracked relative to state standards, and the effect of any intervention can be assessed; and recruit excellent new teachers and retain and develop the existing teaching force.
Question: How can teacher-training institutions more effectively address character and the ethics of the teaching profession?
Levine: I am impressed with a series of programs that have accomplished this, such as Facing History and Ourselves. As for the ethics of teaching, I believe it is the obligation of every profession to teach the ethical standards expected of a practitioner. This needs to be done in terms of course content, but it also needs to be modeled by collegiate and clinical faculty members. It should be part of every course in teacher preparation. In addition, there should be a course on the ethics of the profession. Half the course could be offered at the time of matriculation, and the other half as a graduation capstone.
A version of this article appeared in the July 26, 2006 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: A Conversation With Art Levine