School & District Management

Duncan Cites Shortcomings of Teacher Preparation

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 23, 2009 6 min read
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In what had been billed as a major speech on teacher education, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week reiterated concerns about the quality of the schools that produce a majority of the nation’s teachers.

But some observers said that by praising several new teacher-preparation initiatives, he struck a more conciliatory tone toward the institutions than he did in a speech on similar themes delivered less than two weeks earlier.

Mr. Duncan delivered his speech, the capstone of several events focused on teacher preparation this month, before 900 educators gathered at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. He called on programs to continue their improvement, saying most have not kept pace with a now decade long focus on student outcomes. Using milder language than he did in the previous speech, he also said they are doing “a mediocre job” of preparing teachers for the realities of the profession.

“America’s university-based teacher-preparation programs need revolutionary change—not evolutionary tinkering,” he said. “But I am absolutely optimistic that, despite the obstacles to reform, the seeds of real change have been planted and will bear fruit.”

Such changes should include a stronger preservice fieldwork component, a focus on subject-matter competency and classroom-management techniques, and state action to gauge the success of teacher college graduates in classrooms, Mr. Duncan said.

He highlighted recent grants to bolster teacher “residency” programs and criteria in the $4 billion Race to the Top program that would help states boost teacher-training accountability.

And in the only new measure announced, he said that the Obama administration would try to improve university-based preparation programs when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act comes up for renewal. Federal attempts to change teacher education have typically centered on the Higher Education Act, which lawmakers renewed last summer.

‘Bermuda Triangle’ Excised

But the speech did not offer many details on other federal policies affecting teacher colleges.

“A lot of the speech really focused on historical information, and that’s something we are very well aware of,” said Sandra L. Robinson, the dean of the college of education at the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, and the chairwoman of the board of directors of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, an advocacy group. “I’m delighted that he acknowledged that the 800 members of AACTE have moved in the right direction, [but] I was hoping that he would talk more about what the vision for the future is.”

The speech drew heavily from a controversial 3-year-old report written by Arthur E. Levine, a former head of Teachers College and now the president of the New York City-based Woodrow Wilson Foundation. (“Prominent Teacher-Educator Assails Field, Suggests New Accrediting Body in Report,” Sept. 20, 2006.)

And it came on the heels of a speech on teacher recruiting delivered earlier this month, in which Mr. Duncan called education schools “the Bermuda Triangle of higher education.”

“Students sail in, but no one knows what happens to them after they come out,” Mr. Duncan said in that address at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. “No one knows which students are succeeding as teachers, which are struggling, and what training was useful or not,” he said at the time.

But in his New York speech, Mr. Duncan praised efforts by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education for raising its standards, and AACTE for working on a performance-based assessment of teaching practices that could provide a better gauge of beginning candidates’ teaching effectiveness. He also reserved some criticism for institutions outside education schools that bear on the schools’ ability to produce strong programs.

Underscoring a point made by Mr. Levine in his report, Mr. Duncan chided the many universities that treat their education programs as “cash cows” by diverting program revenues to more prestigious departments. Frequently, they fail to coordinate among education programs and those in the arts and sciences, he said.

Mr. Duncan added that states need to do their part by overhauling their program-approval process. He highlighted Louisiana’s efforts to link graduates of its teacher-certification pathways into the classroom to track their effectiveness at boosting student performance.

States that institute such a system would garner additional competitive points under proposed criteria for the discretionary $4 billion Race to the Top program.

Observers said the speech at Teachers College aligned with Mr. Duncan’s overall goals, but did so in a more conciliatory tone.

“It’s clear that some powerful people in the ed school communities got to Duncan after the UVA speech, although I don’t think he’s delivering a significantly softer message,” said Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based group that has been critical of the quality of education school preparation. An Education Department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on Ms. Walsh’s statement.

No Specific Plans

The speech did not significantly elaborate on the Obama administration’s plans for teacher preparation. Mr. Duncan highlighted the teacher-residency model, which embeds coursework into a yearlong student-teaching experience. The U.S. Department of Education recently invested in residencies for the first time, and early next year will announce the recipients of $100 million in new residencies and other partnerships between universities, low-income school districts, and nonprofit organizations. (“Teacher ‘Residencies’ Get Federal Funding to Augment Training,” Oct. 14, 2009).

Aside from the teacher-tracking language, the proposed criteria for the Race to the Top are silent on traditional education school programs, although the criteria would grant states that agree to remove barriers to alternative-certification routes additional competitive points. That language has raised some concerns from those who say that with hybrid preparation models like residencies on the rise, differentiating between the two types of programs can be difficult.

“The whole problem of what exactly constitutes an ‘alternative pathway’ and whether it resides inside or outside an institute of higher education is an issue that has made research on the effectiveness of these pathways very problematic,” said Alexandra Miletta, a former City College of New York teacher-educator who now works as a consultant.

Richard L. Schwab, a dean emeritus of the education school at the University of Connecticut and a professor of education leadership, added that some residencies take place as a fifth-year addition to four-year education school programs. “They should be considered equally with one-year residencies for those funds,” he said.

Ms. Robinson, meanwhile, had another suggestion for the administration moving forward on crafting policy around teacher preparation.

“I would be very excited if [Arne Duncan] would do a ‘listening and learning’ tour of teacher preparation,” she said, referring to Mr. Duncan’s recent tour to gather feedback on the No Child Left Behind Act. “He’s requested a sea change in teacher preparation—well, here is the tide. It’s right there sitting in our classrooms.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as Duncan Shares Concerns Over Teacher Prep

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