After taking aim at teachers and their unions with an unabashed endorsement of merit pay and charter schools, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has now decided to focus on a target he seems to think might be more vulnerable: schools of education. He has accused them of being “mediocre” and of producing teachers who are largely unprepared to teach in the public schools.
I disagree. Although I too have been critical of these institutions and the role they play (or more often don’t) in helping public education, my criticisms are far different from the secretary’s. In fact, his critique will, I believe, do very little to push the nation’s education reform agenda forward, serving only as a distraction that keeps us from addressing the real issues confronting schools.
For the sake of full disclosure, I will admit to having been employed as a professor in schools of education for more than 20 years (at the University of California, Berkeley; Harvard; and currently New York University). And I agree with the secretary’s contention that many education schools could do a far better job than they do now in preparing teachers. But I also believe it makes no more sense to blame schools of education for the failings of public schools than it does to blame business schools for the collapse of the country’s financial sector.
It makes no more sense to blame schools of education for the failings of public schools than it does to blame business schools for the collapse of the country's financial sector.
It’s true that many schools of education don’t recruit the best students into the profession (partly because the “best” students are attracted to more-lucrative careers), and that too often the research produced in schools of education is of little use to public schools. But similar criticisms could be directed at American universities overall. Instead of a more general critique of higher education, especially as private tuitions increasingly make college unaffordable, schools of education have been singled out for blame.
As is true for American universities generally, there is considerable variability in quality among the nation’s schools of education. While some are poor to mediocre in their academic standards, others consistently produce excellent teachers and support research critical to K-12 schools. Graduates of teacher-credential programs at my university, for example, and at Teachers College, Columbia University, are highly sought after, even at a time when teaching jobs are scarce. Does this mean that they are highly effective when they enter schools? In many cases, they are not.
But this is not because they lack the intellect or dedication. Rather, it is largely because they are frequently assigned to work in the most dysfunctional schools and are expected to teach the most disadvantaged students. This is precisely what many schools and districts do to new teachers. The continuing unfairness of this common practice is something that deserves greater attention from Secretary Duncan.
There are important issues that schools of education and school districts must address if we are to increase the likelihood that new teachers will be effective. Here are a few suggestions for Secretary Duncan on what might help them do that:
Why not provide financial incentives for schools of education to establish lab schools in high-need areas, so that new and inexperienced teachers can receive training in best practices in educational settings that approximate the conditions in the schools where they will actually work?
Why not offer debt relief beyond the federal TEACH Grant Program to math and science majors who pursue teaching careers, on the condition that they stay in the profession for more than five years (unlike Teach For America fellows, who typically remain no more than two or three years)?
Why not cajole our leading universities to do more than leave it to their schools of education to address the needs of public schools, by providing incentives to scholars from the arts, humanities, and sciences to work with teachers to develop innovative curricula?
Why not provide incentives like work-study programs to enlist undergraduates to work in high-need schools as tutors and mentors?
Secretary Duncan would be more likely to move the nation’s education agenda forward if he did less scolding and more encouraging. As the occupant of the most visible bully pulpit in the field, he might do this by offering and soliciting suggestions on ways to invigorate schools—not with more testing, but with creative approaches to instruction that foster critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity among students.
Eight years of the federal No Child Left Behind Act have left us with dropout rates climbing toward 50 percent in some urban areas. We need less finger-pointing and rehashing of the policies of the past. Secretary Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education should provide us with new ways of addressing the failings of public schools and new approaches for tapping in to the creative talent of the nation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2009 edition of Education Week as The New War Against Ed Schools