Teacher Preparation

N.Y. College’s Experience Shows Conflicts Around Ed. School Closures

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 16, 2014 12 min read
Professor Nicholas M. Michelli stands outside the Graduate Center City University of New York in midtown Manhattan. Mr. Michelli, who took part in New York's teacher-preparation-review process, believes the state should have intervened more strongly.
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Today, the teacher-preparation programs at Mercy College in New York state appear to be flourishing, with the education school having received national accreditation this year. But less than a decade ago, state reviewers found the programs in disarray. A financial crunch had led to too few full-time faculty members, mismatched course objectives and assignments, and an inability to gauge teacher-candidates’ skills.

The fallout from that searing 2006 review, during which New York officials opted not to close or suspend the college’s education division and instead let it commit to fixes over time, shines a light on one of the trickiest balancing acts for state regulators in ensuring quality for teacher education: When does a commitment to “continuous improvement” for programs potentially enable, rather than prevent, bad practice?

“When I got here in summer 2010, it was a challenge to turn around,” said Alfred S. Posamentier, the dean of Mercy College’s school of education. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: full-time adjuncts; a full-time professor without an office, a computer, or a telephone.”

The case of Mercy College, in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., may seem narrow and historical, but it was far from an isolated instance in the Empire State. In six other decisions between 2004 and 2010, the New York state board of regents, which oversees both K-12 and higher education, chose not to act on internal recommendations to deny approval to an education school.

And national figures compiled by Education Week, which show that closure of such schools is rare, suggest that a similar phenomenon may be taking place in many states.

Institutional Problems

Founded in 1950, the private, nonprofit Mercy College prides itself on serving a diverse population and nontraditional students. It specializes in the liberal arts and professional programs, such as nursing and teaching.

By the mid-2000s, Mercy’s education programs had grown rapidly, nearly doubling in enrollment between 2001 and 2005, according to federal data. As its master’s-level programs grew in popularity, however, enrollment in its undergraduate programs fell, causing course cancellations and requiring students to be put into independent studies, according to documents obtained through an open-records request. An expansion to two new campuses was beginning to strain resources.

Such issues were apparent in mid- 2006, when a team appointed by the New York state education department visited the school as part of a process called the Regents Accreditation of Teacher Education.

RATE was devised to give colleges that didn’t want to undergo the expense of national accreditation in teacher preparation an alternative option for achieving state-required recognition. Like similar systems in other states, it consisted of a site visit by teacher-educators, teachers, and district officials; interviews with faculty and candidates; and document reviews.

RATE’s reviewers cited more than 40 problems in Mercy College’s teacher-preparation programs, as judged against the state’s standards. At the time, they said, Mercy did not have a system to document how well teacher-candidates were faring. It had too many adjuncts. Its special education curricula failed to match state specifications.

Mercy officials concurred with the review’s general thrust. “We have come to recognize that there are quite a few broad challenges within the Division of Education that need to be addressed,” officials said in the college’s initial response to the findings.

Today, a former president of the college recalls thinking some of the state’s critiques were nitpicking. But she is blunt about what precipitated the problems.

“We were overextended; we had too few faculty; and we were doing what education programs have historically been criticized for doing—we were making a lot of money,” said Louise Feroe, who served as the president of Mercy College from 2004 to 2008.

Too Many Chances?

What remains unclear is why the state chose not to suspend or close the college’s education programs in light of those problems.

As a result of the RATE team’s findings, a subcommittee of the state’s Professional Standards and Practices Board for Teaching recommended denying the college’s education division accreditation.

“Almost all of the findings are based on [the board of] regents’ regulations, so naturally we were concerned about the course assignments with syllabi that didn’t make sense, content and pedagogy not clearly articulated, and on and on and on,” recalled Nicholas M. Michelli, the chair of the subcommittee at the time. “This is what we got from the visit of the team, so who could possibly say yes in the face of that? It seemed to us it was a very clear case.”

Instead, then-Deputy Commissioner of Education Johanna Duncan-Poitier allowed the college to submit additional materials, in which it outlined plans to improve to meet the standards. She subsequently recommended that the state board of regents accredit the education school with conditions, which it did in April 2008. That decision meant Mercy College had to produce reports and undergo more visits, but critically, it also kept enrollments flowing.

In at least one instance, the state gave a Mercy College effort extraordinary leeway. The school’s New Teacher Residency Program—an alternative-certification program created under contract with the New York City education department—operated largely separate from the college’s school of education. RATE’s reviewers found that it nevertheless suffered from problems similar to those of other programs in the education school, especially regarding special education.

Documents from the state education department show that the regents voted to deny accreditation to the residency program, the only time in RATE’s six-year life they upheld such a recommendation from the Professional Standards and Practices Board panel. Yet state officials, presumably with the regents’ go-ahead, subsequently accepted Mercy College’s bid to keep the program open under a “corrective action plan,” giving the residency program another three years to achieve accreditation.

Problems with the New Teacher Residency Program should have been well known to the regents. One of them, Merryl Tisch, wrote her 2005 Ed.D. dissertation at Teachers College, Columbia University, on Mercy’s residency program. (Ms. Tisch became the chancellor of the regents in 2009.)

In her dissertation, Ms. Tisch painted a picture of tension within Mercy College’s education division stemming from the residency program’s separate nature and competing loyalties among faculty, the New York City education department, and TNTP, a nonprofit group that Mercy hired to help implement the program.

Though Ms. Tisch documented that the partners’ collaboration had improved, she suggested that problems grew from a 400 percent expansion in the program’s second year—including mismatched coursework and mentors with heavy loads for supervising candidates.

Ms. Tisch did not return requests for comment.

The residency program ultimately closed at the end of 2010, for financial reasons and diminished demand, factors apparently unrelated to the RATE review.

Empire State Pattern

New York’s handling of the Mercy College situation was not unique. It reflected a larger pattern in the Empire State’s oversight of its teacher-preparation programs.

Over a six-year period, the Professional Standards and Practices Board recommended denying accreditation to six other education schools in the state reviewed through RATE: Daemen College, in Amherst; D’Youville College, in Buffalo; Touro College and Pratt Institute, both in New York City; and specific programs at Roberts Wesleyan College, in Rochester, and Elmira College, in Elmira.

But in each case, the regents instead chose to grant accreditation with conditions, usually after the colleges filed appeals with Ms. Duncan-Poitier and then-Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills.

New York also permitted extra chances for some programs that opted for national accreditation, giving the State University of New York-Plattsburgh an extension after it failed to meet the standards of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, in 2006. (The university’s education school was ultimately accredited by a rival group.)

State officials offered few insights into the pattern. Ms. Duncan-Poitier, now the senior vice chancellor for community colleges and the education pipeline for the State University of New York system, did not return emails and messages seeking comment. Mr. Mills, now retired, did not return a message left at his home.

Through a spokesman at the state education department, Robert Bennett, the chancellor of the regents from 2002 to 2009, declined comment.

Saul B. Cohen, a former state regent, said: “I know some of us strongly wanted to close certain schools; why they were never closed I think was really a political decision, not an educational one.”

Harry Phillips III, the regent then representing the judicial district that is home to Mercy College’s main campus in Dobbs Ferry, said he could not recall the details of the Mercy College decisions or the other instances in which the regents voted contrary to the Professional Standards and Practices Board.

There is, however, some indication that state officials tended to favor remediation over closure. During the time RATE was operating, the state was asking education schools to prepare teachers for demanding new K-12 academic-content standards, said Joseph P. Frey, then an associate commissioner and later a deputy commissioner at the state education department.

The prevailing sense among department staff members was that colleges needed time and assistance to meet them, Mr. Frey said.

“I think we cleaned up a lot of the programs, and got more resources into the programs,” said Mr. Frey, now a senior project director at the Community Assistance and Training Center, a Boston-based consulting group. “Five or six years is not a lot of time to work with institutions of higher education. It takes a lot of time to see changes in a program. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

Ms. Feroe, the former president of Mercy College, agreed that the context in which the RATE process took place was very different from today’s heavier scrutiny of teacher preparation.

With RATE, “the sense wasn’t that there was a hard bottom below which no one could fall. It was, ‘These [criteria] are the defining characteristics of a good program, and we want you to meet them,’ ” she said. “It was developmental, perhaps to a fault.”

Making Improvements?

Both current and former Mercy College officials agree that, despite its limitations, the RATE process did spur some changes.

In March 2007, the college decided to end its undergraduate education programs and to focus on graduate-level preparation. It hired four new faculty members that year to better balance workloads. It began to use common course syllabuses, to rework its special education classes, and it planned to hire a point person to oversee candidate assessment.

Financially, the college’s situation also stabilized on Ms. Feroe’s watch and that of her successor, Kimberly Cline, who served from 2008 to 2013.

But it remains a matter of debate whether such changes should have been embarked upon with new teacher-candidates still enrolling at the school. Federal data indicate that more than 800 education students were enrolled each year between 2006 and 2010; and it is unclear how long it took some of the improvements to take root.

At least some evidence suggests that problems at the school continued for a time. In 2007, for instance, passing rates on a required licensing test dipped below the state-required 80 percent mark at the college’s Bronx campus; in 2008, candidate-passing rates at Mercy’s Yorktown Heights campus fell below that mark on several tests.

Mr. Posamentier said the education school faced significant problems when he became the dean in 2010, four years after the RATE review. Since then, he said, he has worked to restore professionalism to a fractured faculty. He closed one certification route that had relied on individual study, replaced some faculty members, and began a dean’s advisory council of elected officials, businesspeople, and district superintendents to build external support for the college. He encouraged existing faculty members to gin up their scholarship and began a new peer-reviewed journal.

“Within a few weeks, all these famous people were rooting for us, which sends the signal that maybe things aren’t so bad. That gave a big lift,” Mr. Posamentier said. “You have to let faculty realize they’re professionals. You’re supposed to help them publish, spread their subject-matter expertise beyond the classroom.”

A Coda

Today, Mercy College officials say the former troubles are long gone. The college became accredited in 2014 by NCATE, and—under a set of transitional standards—by its successor, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.

The college now has a well-regarded parent-involvement initiative in the Bronx borough of New York City. In 2011, it won more than $2 million in a state contest to set up a “clinically rich” math-teacher education program.

A 2013 New York City-generated report, meanwhile, found that about 80 percent of Mercy’s graduates teaching in its schools were rated “effective” on the city’s teacher-evaluation system, on par with other programs supplying candidates to the city. (Its graduates were also slightly more likely to be rated ineffective, however.)

Bringing up Mercy’s past performance issues remains a touchy subject with the college’s defenders. “They’re doing just great,” Mr. Phillips said. “It’s not hot air. It’s true.”

The story of the RATE process, meanwhile, has its own interesting coda. In 2010, New York shuttered the program because of its expense. At that point, Mr. Frey said, state officials felt the colleges were ready to seek national accreditation and directed them to obtain it by the end of 2013.

Of the seven colleges that the Professional Standards and Practices Board subcommittee believed were lacking under RATE, two—D’Youville and Pratt Institute—still lacked national recognition as of press time.

For Mr. Michelli, the former head of the subcommittee examining the colleges, his experience with RATE is a testament to the delicate, contested, and imprecise science of vetting the quality of the nation’s teaching programs. Which is why, even now, he said he understands the regents’ decisions, despite disagreeing with them.

“I’m sure the regents thought they did the right thing; they know it’s complex, it’s hard to make the judgment,” Mr. Michelli said. “How do you know what’s related to excellent teaching? If New York is negligent, then so is everyone else.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2015 edition of Education Week as N.Y. Officials Balked at Closing Ed. Schools Despite Problems


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