The Wise Approach

February 01, 1992 8 min read

Arthur Wise is discussing the troubled state of math education in America’s schools. He cites two recent statistics from federal studies: Almost half of the country’s 12th graders can’t perform 8th grade math, and more than 40 percent of math teachers did not major in math and are not certified to teach it.

Wise sees a direct connection between those statistics: “Too many of our math teachers do not have the subject matter and pedagogical preparation to ensure that all of our youngsters achieve at the level that we hope they will achieve.’' In short, poorly prepared teachers produce poorly educated students.

As president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education--NCATE for short--Wise is trying to improve that situation. And he thinks the only way to do it is by strengthening teacher education and licensing. People can talk all they want about longer school years, more power for teachers, multicultural curricula, and other popular reform ideas; but in the end, Wise says, choosing his words carefully: “There is no substitute for building a system of preparation and licensing that will raise the quality of the people who enter the profession. I think it will be shown that the best strategy for improving the schools is improving the intellectual capital of those who staff them.’'

People in education often confuse licensing with certification; they talk about teacher certification when they really mean teacher licensure. In most professions, the state licenses practitioners, while the profession itself certifies them. The relatively new National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is at work on a certification process for teachers, but there is currently no system up and running. Wise supports the National Board’s efforts to develop a set of strong professional standards that teachers must meet to be certified, but he has trained his attention on strengthening licensure.

The current teacher licensing system, Wise argues, fails in its intended purpose: It doesn’t guarantee the public that teachers are prepared to teach. “It’s a joke,’' he says. Licensure in most states merely indicates that a teacher candidate has completed a required number of education courses; it reveals nothing about the candidate’s professional knowledge or teaching ability.

If anyone can shake up teacher education and licensing and bring more attention to what most people consider a decidedly unexciting topic, it’s Wise. One of the best-known and most-influential figures in American education, Wise has been at the center of efforts to reform schools and professionalize teaching. Before assuming the leadership of NCATE in July 1990, Wise directed the RAND Corp.'s Center for the Study of the Teaching Profession, which he helped launch in 1985. In addition to issuing many widely read reports on teacher-related issues, the center helped design, implement, and evaluate schoolreform efforts around the country.

Wise first made his mark on education policy more than 20 years ago when a graduate paper he wrote on school finance was published. The 1968 book, Rich Schools, Poor Schools: The Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity, argued that wide funding disparities within states are unconstitutional. His argument provided the foundation for many subsequent school-finance lawsuits that ultimately forced a number of states to implement more equitable funding formulas. Later, in the mid-1970s, Wise served as associate director of the National Institute of Education and helped President Carter create the first U.S. Department of Education. It was during this period that he wrote Legislated Learning: The Bureaucratization of the American Classroom, a book that foreshadowed many now-popular reform ideas, such as site-based management.

The American School Board Journal recently characterized Wise’s influence on the school system this way: “His impact on education policy stems chiefly from a blend of personal and professional skills--the creative force of his ideas, coupled with skill in expressing them; the ability to spot trends in education, plus a determination to influence the direction education should take.’'

The organization Wise now heads had long been considered a toothless lion that did little to improve the much-maligned field of teacher education. But new, tougher accreditation standards introduced in 1988 have given NCATE some bite, which has made many in the education school community nervous. The council has denied accreditation to almost 30 percent of the schools that have sought approval under the new standards.

If there’s one thing Wise has tried to promote in his short tenure at NCATE, it’s the need for education school students to complete a comprehensive teacher training program. Most colleges and universities require prospective teachers to take courses in a variety of subject areas, but little attention is paid to the overall education and preparation they receive.

In place of this “collection-ofcourses’’ approach, schools that apply for NCATE approval must now outline “a clear vision of the kind of teachers they want to produce and a coherent program to produce such teachers,’' Wise says. In addition to explicitly laying out their philosophy, he adds, teacher education programs must be based on current research findings, sound professional practice, and essential pedagogical knowledge.

Wise is fighting an uphill battle. Although the majority of new teachers graduate from the approximately 500 NCATE-accredited schools, some 700 other colleges and universities that prepare teachers do not bear the NCATE stamp of approval. And only two states--Arkansas and North Carolina--require NCATE accreditation for their schools of education. In practice, Wise points out, there are 51 widely varying sets of standards and accreditation systems in teacher education--NCATE’s and each state’s. As Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, asserts in the first issue of NCATE’s new newsletter, “At present, we have no systematic way to ensure NCATE standards are the profession’s standards. Accountability for educating and licensing teachers is so diffused that it is meaningless.’'

That’s why Wise is stepping beyond the confines of teacher education to campaign for changes that would make teaching operate much more like other established professions. To earn a license in accounting or architecture, for example, prospective practitioners must first graduate from a nationally accredited college or university. In addition, the states typically unite behind a national performancebased assessment system that candidates must pass before they are licensed.

Wise believes that something of this sort is essential in education if teachers are to gain the professional status enjoyed by doctors and lawyers. An assessment system might include a number of stages: a test of subject matter and professional knowledge, a year-long internship in which the candidate develops and demonstrates teaching ability, and another exam that assesses actual teaching skills, such as the ability to evaluate student papers or select textbooks. Taken together, Wise says, these assessments would provide a convincing picture of a teacher’s fitness to teach.

Just as medical licensing boards are run by doctors, state teacher licensing systems, as Wise envisions them, would be overseen by standards boards made up primarily of teachers. Parts of this idealized model of teacher education and licensure are in place in various states, but a comprehensive national system--one that would serve as a sort of quality control mechanism for teaching--remains merely a vision. He likes to point out that it took medicine 30 years to change from a profession in which many doctors received highly questionable training to the respected, modern profession we know today.

Although Wise hopes teaching can achieve similar results in a much shorter time, he has never been one to endorse quick solutions. Since his days at RAND, he’s been highly critical of what he sees as harmful short-sighted approaches to attract people to teaching. What’s the point of setting standards for teachers, Wise argues, if those standards are regularly subverted by practices such as emergency or alternative certification?

Programs such as Teach For America, which works to attract liberal arts graduates from top universities for two-year teaching stints, may be well-intentioned, he says, but ultimately, they damage the profession. “I want to open teaching up to a variety of people,’' Wise says, “but I have no interest in a parade of people trying teaching just briefly until they move on to a more ‘serious’ career.’'

Although it’s not official NCATE policy, Wise supports a five-year program of teacher training--four years of traditional liberal arts education during which students master the subject matter they will teach, followed by a one-year master’s degree program in education and teacher preparation. “It’s very hard to provide a full liberal education, an adequate grounding in professional and pedagogical knowledge, and a serious clinical experience in four years,’' he says.

Wise has already taken steps to increase NCATE’s visibility: He has hired a fulltime communications director and published the first issue of what will likely be a quarterly NCATE newsletter. It’s doubtful NCATE will become a household word, but he does want everyone in education, including teachers, to recognize the council’s importance. “I want people to see NCATE as a force to encourage the continuous improvement of teacher education, and I want them to realize the important connection between how teacher education is viewed and how teachers are viewed,’' he says. “Teacher education should be an intellectually demanding experience. The more that is seen to be the case, the better the public will regard teachers. I think that’s essential for encouraging young people to come into the field and for helping create the conditions that will make teaching a satisfying, lifelong career.’'

Daniel Gursky

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as The Wise Approach