Education Funding

Arthur Levine, Known for Harsh Critiques of Teacher-Preparation Programs, to Step Down

Foundation head known for lambasting teacher training
By Madeline Will — June 18, 2019 7 min read
Arthur Levine in his office at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

Arthur Levine sent shockwaves through the teacher-preparation field in the mid-2000s when he released a series of reports criticizing universities for failing to adequately prepare teachers.

But on the eve of his retirement as the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, he’s more focused on solutions.

“I concluded anybody can throw bombs,” he said. “The question was, can you fix it? ... We can either try to fix the existing model [of teacher preparation] or we can try to reinvent it. And when I got to Woodrow Wilson, we did a little bit of both.”

Levine, 70, will step down as president on June 30. During his 13-year tenure at the foundation, he spearheaded several initiatives designed to improve the preparation of educators.

But in 2006, he was disheartened with the state of teacher education. Levine, who had spent a dozen years as the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, released four damning reports on schools of education across the country. He concluded that teacher-prep programs were “unruly and disordered,” and that they’re treated as a “cash cow” by universities.

As a result, Levine wrote, the majority of aspiring teachers are not sufficiently prepared for the demands of the classroom. If education schools don’t reform, he wrote, there’s a “serious risk” that they “will fade away or even be declared a failure.”

The reports were controversial, with many in the field pushing back against some of the conclusions. Still, they started important conversations.

“Arthur was willing to do what many in higher ed. would not, acknowledging—no, broadcasting!—some hard truths about the sorry state of teacher education in this country,” Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a think tank that advocates more rigorous preparation of teachers, wrote in an email.

And while Rick Ginsberg, the dean of the school of education at the University of Kansas, considered some of Levine’s warnings to be hyperbolic, he said he thought at the time, “if nothing else, this report demands that we’re doing evidence-based practices moving forward.”

Now, Levine said, he still thinks the warnings in those reports hold true—and enrollment in teacher-preparation programs has indeed fallen over the past decade—but he’s optimistic about the progress being made.

Working to ‘Build Things Up’

When Levine arrived at the foundation, he oversaw the creation of the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship, designed to attract recent college graduates as well as professionals in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields to teach in high-needs areas. The foundation has worked with 31 universities in six states to transform their STEM graduate teacher-prep programs.

And in 2015, Levine launched a brand-new graduate school of education with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning is a competency-based program for secondary math and science teachers. The school’s first official class is set to graduate this summer.

“It’s not that he’s trying to tear anything down, he’s trying to build things up,” Ginsberg said. “He has certainly helped the field move forward and change and base practices on evidence [and] use data to inform decisionmaking.”

Reflecting on his work at the foundation, Levine said it was critical to merge experimentation with reinvention. “Let’s say that the school we’ve created with MIT ... let’s say that’s perfect, absolutely perfect. How long will it take to scale that up?” Levine said. “We can’t afford to wait for years to improve the quality of teacher preparation and school leader preparation, so we have to fix the existing model. You gotta do both.”

Fixing the Current Model

The Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship has sent more than a thousand STEM teachers into high-needs classrooms, while tinkering with existing teaching programs’ models of preparation.

The foundation gives up to $500,000 to each participating university to make meaningful changes to its master’s degree programs for secondary math and science teachers. (The universities match the funds, Levine said, so they have “skin in the game.”)

During the fellowship, students undergo a full year of clinical practice in a high-needs urban or rural school, and after they graduate, they receive mentoring throughout their three-year teaching commitment.

Levine designed the program to recruit highly qualified content experts into the teaching profession. The curriculum “brings together arts and sciences and education,” he said. “The program is rooted in the content area, not simply in pedagogy.”

Over the last decade-plus, the fellowship has gotten results: Retention among the fellows is 2.5 times the rate of other teachers in high-needs schools in the states in which they are prepared. And ongoing research shows that the students in the fellows’ classes are outperforming their peers, Levine said.

Currently, the only active partnerships are in Pennsylvania and Georgia. But after the foundation ends its financial support in a state, it works with the partner universities to make sustainable changes to their approach to teacher education. Universities might continue the fellowship or adopt some of the program elements into other models. Before entering a new state, the foundation forms a coalition of policymakers and stakeholders from teacher-prep programs and school districts, so there is accountability and support.

“The programs at the schools, they’ve committed to—and they view it as an opportunity to—strengthen their teacher-ed. program,” Levine said. “And I can’t think of one school that didn’t do that.”

Meanwhile, the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning is meant to be a research-and-development laboratory for teacher prep. Levine wanted to create a “time-independent” and “problem-centered” school of education.

But creating such a program from scratch has been challenging, and finding a new way to require clinical experience without mandating a certain number of hours was “killer,” he said.

Instead, while students are placed in partner districts during the program, they also have the opportunity to practice classroom management and parent-teacher conferences, among other teaching experiences, through digital simulations, with avatars posing as students or parents. Those clinical experiences are tied to the curriculum, which is divided into 12 “problems” that teachers must know how to solve.

“For example, you just gave your class a test, and lo and behold, most of your class failed it. What are you going to do?,” Levine said. “That answer is interesting, but what we really want to know is, are you competent in lesson planning, are you competent in assessment, are you competent in how kids learn, are you competent at your subject matter? Once you can convince us of those four things, you move on to the next problem.”

Students are eligible for graduation and licensure once they complete all the challenges. The average student will likely need a year, he said.

This year’s class was only about a dozen students, Levine said, and next year’s cohort will be similarly sized. In the 2020-21 school year, the academy will admit the first class to pay tuition—$27,000 as a flat fee for completing the program.

A New Chapter

Lately, Levine has been focused on an initiative to tackle the lack of meaningful history instruction in schools. Researchers from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation found that only 4 in 10 citizens are able to pass a multiple-choice test made up of 20 questions from the U.S. citizenship test.

Their conclusion: Teacher training and course requirements are not the problem. Instead, the issue is that history instruction is too passive, relying on rote memorization of facts, dates, and places.

History instruction should be more relevant and engaging, Levine said. There should be an emphasis on deeply understanding the history, rather than reciting the basic facts.

“The country is deeply divided,” he said. “History is one commonality that we share. ... The capacity to see what happens in the past can serve as an anchor in a time of dramatic change.”

The foundation plans to launch an interactive digital platform with games, videos, and simulations this year. The goal, Levine said, is to “attract millions of kids"—from those who already love history to those who couldn’t care less about it.

But that work—and the continuation of the work reimagining teacher preparation—will be done under the guidance of Rajiv Vinnakota, the next president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. (Vinnakota co-founded the SEED Foundation, which is a network of public, college-preparatory boarding schools for underserved children.)

Levine will remain at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in a senior fellow role, with plans to write a book on the history of higher education.

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2019 edition of Education Week as After Career Overhauling Ed. Schools, Levine to Step Down

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