Teacher Preparation

In Stormy Times, AACTE Turns to New Shepherd

By Linda Jacobson — May 03, 2005 8 min read
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As the first new president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education in more than 30 years, at a time when the demands for well-trained educators are at their highest and new players are entering the field, Sharon P. Robinson knows she has a weighty and sometimes unenviable task in front of her.

“It’s like being on a high wire, in the center ring, in the spotlight, with no net,” said Ms. Robinson, who replaced the association’s longtime leader, David G. Imig, last month.

Politicians and education leaders have new expectations of the nation’s teacher-preparation programs. It’s not enough that they run aspiring teachers through a specified number of courses during their college careers. They must provide proof that their graduates are effectively contributing to student achievement in the classroom and have the ability to work with children from a variety of backgrounds.

Sharon P. Robinson comes to the teachers' colleges group from a background as a teacher, union and federal official, and testing-company executive.

Those expectations, Ms. Robinson said, are leaving some education deans thinking: “We’re doing the best we can, but that’s not good enough, so how do we need to change?”

It will be Ms. Robinson’s task to help guide them, as well as to persuade policymakers, she hopes, to stop tearing down the institutions that train teachers.

Colleagues say she has the skills to represent the Washington-based AACTE before Congress and other federal and state lawmakers,while also moving the organization forward.

“Teacher preparation is under greater scrutiny than ever before. That will pose both challenges and opportunities for her,” said Arthur E. Wise, the president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, also located in Washington. “She has the relevant knowledge and experience to operate in the political realm. She is an excellent choice for this position at this time.”

‘Wheat and the Chaff’

And these have been tough political times for teacher education. The Bush administration, among many others, has promoted an image of education schools as being resistant to change.

At a U.S. Department of Education conference three years ago, for example, then-Secretary Rod Paige said: “Many schools of education have continued business as usual, focusing heavily on pedagogy, how to be a teacher, when the evidence cries out that what future teachers need most is a deeper understanding of the subject they’ll be teaching, of how to monitor student progress, and how to help students who are falling behind.”

At a Glance

Organization: American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education

Year Established: 1948

Members: 785 teacher-training institutions

Headquarters: Washington

Staff: 40

Annual budget: $4.5 million

Leadership: President Sharon P. Robinson and a 23-member board of directors. Five board members serve on the executive committee.

SOURCE: Education Week

Consequently, one challenge for Ms. Robinson will be to communicate to policymakers and the public that many schools and colleges of education are already adjusting their programs to better prepare their students for the classroom, said Barnett Berry, the president of the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality, in Chapel Hill, N.C.

“There are teacher education schools that are doing an excellent job of preparing teachers for hard-to-staff, low-performing schools. But no one knows about them,” he said. “Then there are too many education schools who are still preparing teachers well, but only for the average student in the average school. She needs to help distinguish among the wheat and the chaff.”

The association, Ms. Robinson pointed out, is already working to disseminate some of the work being done by the 11 institutions participating in Teachers for a New Era, an initiative supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and other foundations. Those colleges of education are charged with making a number of structural changes to their programs, including collaborating with colleges of arts and sciences, giving prospective teachers more experience in the field, and collecting evidence on teacher effectiveness.

“They are kind of the test bed for some important potential learning,” Ms. Robinson said. “The role of the AACTE is to support those folk who are on the edge of the frontier.”

Ms. Robinson, 60, has operated inside both the public and private sectors, holding high-profile posts at the National Education Association, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Educational Testing Service.

She began her career in education in the 1970s as a teacher in Kentucky. In 1989, she became the director of the NEA’s National Center for Innovation, the research-and-development arm of the teachers’ union. At the Education Department during the Clinton administration, she served as the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement and oversaw millions of dollars in federal grants.

In 1997, Ms. Robinson joined the ETS, where she held various senior positions. As the testing company’s vice president for teaching and learning, she was in charge of its teacher-assessment programs, including the Praxis series of tests.

Not an ‘Exclusive Club’

Ms. Robinson herself is the product of an education school. She earned her bachelor’s and advanced degrees in education from the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Since then, she’s come up with some ideas about what schools of education need to do to strengthen their programs. One of those is expanding the amount of preservice experience in K-12 schools that candidates receive before they graduate.

“New teachers should experience very challenging cases as part of a structured internship,” Ms. Robinson said. “That doesn’t mean a mentor teacher coming by once a month.”

Being innovative will be but one of her responsibilities. Ms. Robinson is also charged with representing the AACTE’s membership of more than 780 institutions and attracting new members at a time when the traditional teacher education landscape is changing rapidly.

“If we want to be really inclusive and bring all of the people to the table, then we need to invite everybody,” said Robert J. Yinger, the dean of the school of education at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the current chairman of the association’s board of directors. “This should not be just an exclusive club.”

Ms. Robinson seems open to accommodating the needs of prospective teachers through alternative-preparation programs, saying it doesn’t matter whether programs are “four years or five years, or when you come into it,” and “you can’t really start to draw bright red lines” between traditional and alternative methods. That stance, however, doesn’t necessarily mean she’d welcome such programs into the AACTE family.

She does express reservations about alternatives to voluntary certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards for experienced teachers—which she helped craft while working for the NEA.

“I find it hard to understand what we are getting by creating a competitor to the national board,” she said, in reference to the planned “master teacher” certification to be awarded by the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, a 4-year-old organization that offers teacher-certification tests, particularly for career-changers.

Favored by the Bush administration as a means of meeting the requirement for “highly qualified” teachers under the No Child Left Behind Act, the program has received $40 million in federal grants.

“I think there are huge opportunities for us to work together. The students need us to come together, not to be creating turf wars,” countered Kathleen Madigan, the president of the Washington-based ABCTE. “I would love the profession to get to the place where we can refer to each other.”

But the ABCTE is just one of many new forms of alternative programs, noted Mr. Paige, who has strongly supported alternative routes. “The more we urge, and campaign, and successfully achieve more money into the system, the more it is attracting the private sector,” such as organizations offering online degrees, the former education secretary said.

Thoughts on Accreditation

While Ms. Robinson expressed excitement about projects that are looking toward the future of teacher education, she said she also wants to focus on improving and strengthening “program quality through accreditation.”

Some observers say they’ll also be watching to see how open Ms. Robinson is to accreditation bodies other than NCATE, considering how closely she and her organization have worked with the national council over the years.

The fact that the AACTE was one of the founders of NCATE in 1954—and that roughly 80 percent of the members of the education schools’ group are NCATE-accredited—helps explain Ms. Robinson’s allegiance to that leading accreditation system.

But Frank B.Murray, the president of the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, founded in 1997, said that some of his preliminary discussions with Ms. Robinson have been “encouraging” and that there is a “fair amount of common ground” between the two organizations.

“At one level, TEAC was not welcome news for AACTE. They wished it wouldn’t have happened,” Mr. Murray said. “But now, it is clearly the case that TEAC has met an important need in the country.”

He said TEAC has given colleges of education that were “dissatisfied with the NCATE approach” an alternative means of becoming accredited. TEAC focuses on gathering evidence that a school’s graduates can teach effectively. The schools decide what that evidence will be, within parameters set by TEAC. In contrast, NCATE’s reviews require programs to meet national standards and, these days, to prove that their graduates are making a difference in the classroom.

Whether schools choose NCATE or TEAC, Ms. Robinson said, the growing emphasis on student learning and achievement is important. “Our members will discover which of the systems seems to serve them,” she said. “It’s hard to ignore that some have expressed an interest in something else, and we’ll be all the stronger for it.”

The fact that Ms. Robinson was not an education school dean may be an issue for some in the field, but even during the search process, the AACTE committee members in charge of the task signaled they were looking for something different. After all, Mr. Imig, who announced his retirement last year, hadn’t been a dean either.

Said Mr. Yinger, “We’re just looking for leadership.”


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