Teacher Preparation

Critical Thinking

By Denise Kersten Wills — November 10, 2006 7 min read
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In Educating School Teachers, a report published in September by the Education Schools Project, Columbia University’s former Teachers College president Arthur Levine paints a bleak picture of teacher-education programs.

After visiting institutions across the country and conducting surveys, Levine and researchers found that most teaching programs suffer from low standards, out-of-touch faculty, and poor quality control—that, in short, they fail to prepare educators for the classroom.

The report drew both fire and praise even before its official release, and has sparked an ongoing debate. We followed up with Levine and asked him to weigh in.

Arthur Levine

What overall grade would you give the country’s teacher-education programs?

I can’t do it. There are programs that deserve A’s and there are programs that deserve F’s. It’s analogous to having a person whose head is in an oven at 300 degrees and his feet are at –100. On average, the person’s temperature is normal.

Are there more A’s or more F’s?

There are more F’s.

Your report says teacher education hasn’t kept pace with changes in the classroom.

What’s happened is the whole world changed. It changed economically, it changed demographically, it changed technologically, it changed globally. So while the current generation of teachers was busily teaching their classes, the whole context of what they do became different.

Arthur Levine’s report, “Educating School Teachers,” is posted by the Education Schools Project.

The economy is a wonderful example. We lost the jobs that people could get as high school graduates. They’ve gone abroad. The jobs that are available require the highest level of skills and knowledge ever in U.S. history. So teachers now have the job of educating all students to new and higher levels.

Information economies are different than industrial economies. Industrial economies focus, concentrate, on process. They want to make sure that processes are common throughout all schools. It’s like an assembly line. So that all kids start at age 5, unless in preschool, all kids go for 12 years once they get into grade school. All kids take five courses for 180 days a year, and for 45-minute periods. What we’ve done is, we’ve created that uniformity.

Information societies, in contrast, allow for variable processes and common outcomes. What that means is that the key question became, not, Does this program look like all other programs? The key question became, What are the students learning? That’s a revolutionary change.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s revolutionary to the extent that everything got flip-flopped. Instead of focusing on teaching, what the teacher does in the classroom, what the teacher presents in the classroom, we shifted to the student learns as a consequence of whatever went on in the classroom.

Is that a change reflected in NCLB?

I think the whole nation was moving there. It is certainly reflected in NCLB but I don’t think that’s the impetus. I think that NCLB caught the changes that were occurring in the country, rather than stimulating them.

What do you mean when you say we’re weak on outcome measures?

We don’t know how effective [the] teachers we prepare are in educating the students.

Because of a lack of good research?

Yeah, and also it’s not as if this were the question 10 years ago. Remember the shift I talked about, that it’s almost an overnight shift and nobody announced that it was a revolution. I don’t even think they realized what they were asking.

That’s interesting that the shift is that recent--the last 10 years, you would say?

Let’s go back and make it 15 to be conservative. But that’s when it happened. If you read NCLB and then if you read “A Nation at Risk,” it certainly doesn’t sound like NCLB.

You’ve been called elitist for criticizing less-selective and less-prestigious institutions.

The cry of elitism too often is the defense against raising standards. Those who want to preserve low standards announce that any attempt to increase them is elitism. It’s human nature.

I can’t make a defense of failing education schools because they provide access. Access to whom? Access to what? One of the worst schools we saw in the whole study ... a recycler. They took students from failing public schools, offered them a dreadful program, and sent them back to teach in failing public schools in the same neighborhood.

Another complaint is that because teachers’ salaries are so low and prestigious universities so expensive, those schools will never produce many teachers.

I talked to a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She said, “For my generation, teaching is the equivalent of the Peace Corps.”

I think there’s this whole group of idealistic college students who desperately want to become teachers. I think there’s a group of people who are ready to recycle from careers they are no longer excited about and want to become teachers.

Would we get more of the best and the brightest if we raised their salaries? Absolutely. Would we have a lower attrition rate? You bet. But I think we can get enough. What we need to add to this are scholarships. If we want students to become teachers, make it possible for them.

You described some education programs as cash cows. Are students getting ripped off?

Yes and no. There are some schools in which everybody wins. Students are going there because they’re going to get a salary bump … and nobody is getting ripped off except for the children they are going to teach.

At many other schools, students walk in the door and are greeted by adjuncts. There are too many [students] for the number of faculty in the program, and everything gets skimped on. [Student teaching] placements are terrible, and there’s inadequate supervision.

How easy is it to get into one of these programs?

Very easy. Although, there’s a general perception on the part of people who don’t know teacher education that its students are at the bottom of the barrel, the worst students who exist in universities anywhere. That’s poppycock.

We know that students who are going to teach in secondary schools look the same as their peers, in colleges and universities around the country. No difference. They are weaker in elementary education—about 100 points difference on the GREs and a comparable difference on the SATs.

The Way Forward

Levine makes five recommendations for improving teaching programs at colleges and universities:

1. Transform education schools into professional programs focused on classroom practice.

2. Focus on children’s achievement as the primary measure of teacher-education programs.

3. Make five-year programs the norm.

4. Rethink accreditation to focus on student achievement data and include non-collegiate programs.

5. Close failing teacher-education programs, strengthen promising ones, and expand excellent programs. Create incentives for outstanding students and career-changers to enter teacher education at doctoral universities.

Are students getting into programs who are unfit to be teachers?

That’s undoubtedly true. But it’s probably true of every other profession, too. The bigger problem here is we don’t know what it takes to be fit as a teacher because we don’t know what they have to do. So it all goes back to, Why not admit anybody?

That was the troubling thing: We’d visit schools and it’d really bother me a lot when the students were performing at the bottom of the Praxis exam. So we went to visit the provost, who told us, “I think our standards are too high and we’re not admitting enough students.” The dropout rate at that school was huge. Something like one-quarter of all the students graduated. Frequently, the notion of having no standards was presented as a commitment to access.

And my favorite of all was the person who explained to me that his teacher-education program was committed to increasing the number of women teaching. That might seem a little strange in a woman-dominated profession. If he had said black males I could’ve understood that. So given the school’s commitment to increase the proportion of women, that meant they could take anybody, since most of the people applying were women.

So there’s this commitment to access at the cost of standards?

But also at the cost of students. What they are given is a revolving door. They can’t get through the program. It’s not fair to admit them to a program you know they can’t complete.

Why can’t they complete it?

They don’t have the academic skills and background. But worse than that, the program’s not going to build those.

I don’t care as much about standards of admission as I do about standards of graduation. Two schools that aren’t highly selective in terms of admissions are profiled in the report. One is Alverno College [in Milwaukee], which has basically open admissions, and the other is Emporia State University [in Emporia, Kansas]. Both build in the capacity to strengthen students in the course of the program.

Did you find any good news?

There are excellent programs across the country that can serve as models. Given that they are in public and private colleges, sectarian and non-sectarian colleges, highly selective and less selective schools … what they show is that there’s no excuse for any education program not being excellent.

A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as Critical Thinking

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