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Opinion
Education Commentary

The Privatization of Teacher Education

By James P. Steffensen — January 30, 1991 7 min read

Amid the increasing calls today for a national energy policy is the occasional warning that the absence of a national education policy portends the bankruptcy of our urban schools and a resulting disaster as great perhaps in its consequences as that in the Gulf. Yet, the ensuing dialogues in each instance have centered upon cosmetic solutions involving little national sacrifice. Save energy by taxing high gas-consuming cars. Save the schools by improving teacher recruitment or training programs. Action is taken but the eventual crisis nears.

For those who are comfortable with the cost of immediate action but reject, because of cost, halting of the continued decay, teachers have become a scapegoat of classic definition. Their accessibility to public scrutiny, their partial guilt and powerlessness as a body absent professional status, and their importance all combine to make the teaching workforce a sure target. It is a target for those frustrated with schooling in America, hungry to do something about the situation, and yet unwilling to fund promises of lengthy, politically and fiscally costly, systemic school reform.

So other remedies surface. Ever superficial, they are thus nonetheless welcome. They postpone facing national priorities, yet show awareness and concern. By definition, they are inexpensive. The teacher-education community, faced with an endless siege of adversarial public questioning, has long reacted defensively. It nurtures a cottage industry of non-incremental activities ignorant of any unifying agenda. Those professing a national concern are encouraged to compete for scarce federal funds which provide marginal dollars for projects called research or demonstration. The crisis is addressed, distress is evidenced, political acumen is displayed, and action, however important or relevant, is proclaimed.

Private or federal funding of national reform efforts--whether partnerships with schools to face common problems or the preparation of dialogue and analyses highlighting the nation’s economic, social, and security needs--have long existed. They have typically served non-operational functions, addressing with the schools common goals that neither could pursue alone.

Recognizing that schools, teachers, and students are in a crisis and that taxes are high, there has emerged a new proposition. Private funding would operate with sole accountability programs, which until recently have been viewed as a public responsibility. Using private funds for public purpose in the absence of public accountability, however, has typically been associated with, say, religious or charitable groups. It may be competitive with long-held precepts assigning public responsibility. The growth of the academy in areas facing school integration was an example. Why not teacher education?

Among several examples of private funding of operational activities of public education, the most highly publicized has been the New York City-based Teach for America, now in its first year of operation. It clearly exemplifies the entry of private funding with unilateral responsibility for operational areas of public education. TFA cited the elevation of the intellectual level of the teaching force as one long-overdue solution to the crisis in schooling, and sets that as its prime goal. This is done through a selective teacher-recruiting strategy that emphasizes the importance of SAT scores to that workforce.

I met with the leadership of Teach for America half a dozen times as they reviewed the operational means necessary to implement this goal. I had worked with the federal Teacher Corps for a number of years. Teach for America was planning a summer institute somewhat similar to those the Teacher Corps operated prior to its demise a decade ago and sought my views. TFA’s strategy for achieving its primary objective was straightforward. One, recruit only from colleges known for high SAT scores. Two, promise those recruits a minimum of pedagogy during the training prior to actual teaching.

This strategy, posited TFA, would in itself improve the quality of teaching and learning opportunities for children of families of the underclass and the excluded, while holding constant the conditions of work. Operationally, the group prepared a roster of 100 “top” colleges from which 500 bright, motivated graduates with high SAT’s could be recruited for two-year stints as school teachers. They would be 1990 graduates of Bates, Bowdoin, Hamilton, Haverford, Rice, Reed, Smith, Swarthmore, Tufts, Trinity, and 90 other colleges. Following an eight-week training session, the 500 would join a school faculty, raising its mean SAT score and thus satisfying a high Teach for America priority.

Teach for America proposed to prepare its recruits for entry into a classroom just as they are prepared in many colleges of education today. But it would provide the same field and theoretical experience in eight weeks, not two years. Education majors, with lower SAT scores, are just not as swift as TFA recruits.

An extended absence from this country left me uninformed of the group’s progress. But my interest was rekindled by a July 9 op-ed piece in the New York Times by Marcella Spruce, a graduate of a top college who had left teaching recently. Her commentary, “The Youthful Arrogance of Teach for America,” described the TFA recruits as undergoing a two-year “proletarian experience before moving on to a real job.” (I found equally distressing the fact that it was Teach for America’s goal to seek people of color, yet it excluded from its Top 100 roster every historically black, state-supported university in the nation.)

Believing the Teach for America recruits were destined to remain oblivious of basic teaching skills, as well as of the pains and joys that go with 30--not two--years in an urban classroom, Ms. Spruce likened TFA to Indiana Jones, saving our young people from the dullards now staffing our schools. She found this naive and insulting to the classroom incumbents, soon to work beside those bright young recruits. This attack drew a reply in the July 31 Times from the dean of the education school at the University of Southern California, site of Teach for America’s eight-week summer institute, who found the recruits a dandy group and the Indiana Jones reference inappropriate.

The staffing of classrooms for a nation’s system of free and public education deserves better. It should not rely upon a plinth of pro bono services, donated personnel or materials, or an annual fund drive. Over 15 years, the Teacher Corps received half a billion dollars of appropriated funds. Other federal and state, as well as private or foundation funds for improving teacher education were multiples of Teacher Corps’. These were and are minor compared with the far larger amounts expended at the state and local levels. But the former were marginal, venture dollars in a sense, and remain vital resources to teacher selection and education reform.

The public image of teacher education and teacher-recruitment policy, however, suggests that little residue remains from those expenditures. It is an image that draws a concerned public and a besieged education community toward desperate, albeit unrealistic, reform efforts such as Teach for America. Such projects have a history of short life spans because they are planned to have short life spans. Replication, continuity, cost-effectiveness are alien terms, considered neither intellectually nor fiscally germane. My Teacher Corps experience would suggest that Teach for America, through the 1990 summer institute, cost $8 million (including eight weeks of lost-opportunity time for 500 of our best and brightest).

Estimated costs per intern can be enormous if a program assays the replicability of its successes based on a single event. Replication, if feasible, among the nation’s countless non-funded sites drops that cost dramatically. The difficulty of measuring unit costs contributed to Teacher Corps’ decline and later demise. Yet, on a short-term basis, Teach for America-like projects are attractive. Action, however ill-conceived, is shown.

Public education remains public business today. It does seem important, however, to debate soon the viability of funding and managing solely with private dollars what has been viewed hitherto as a public responsibility.

Isolated projects, if publicized too soon and too highly, only delay long-overdue but necessary preparation by serious people of a serious design of the future of our urban schools. They serve as radar chaff, deflecting rigorous efforts at reform away from reason and toward, instead, a concentration on the teaching act. Absent such colloquy, teaching will stay less competitive for talent with other occupations, a hobby not a vocation, a way point to a real job, or a supplement to an annuity from a long career in a prior life.

Perhaps saddest, education will remain a total local responsibility, with a nod of the head to the state, leaving the nation as bereft of an education policy as it is of an energy policy. Politicians, practitioners, and the public are in a constant state of confusion as to what response the nation’s leaders are considering to an impending crisis of epic proportions.

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 1991 edition of Education Week as The Privatization of Teacher Education

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