Teacher Preparation Opinion

Taking the Measure of Teacher Education

By Ted Sanders — October 09, 2006 8 min read
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More than 10 years ago, a group of deans from many of the nation’s premier teacher education programs warned of the consequences of continuing to be disconnected from research, classrooms, and the learning and developmental needs of young people. (“Holmes Group Urges Overhaul Of Ed. Schools,” Feb. 1, 1995.) “Institutions preparing educators should either adopt reforms that link their educational contributions closely with improved schooling … or surrender their franchise,” the Holmes Group challenged in “Tomorrow’s Schools of Education.”

A decade after that Holmes report, teacher education has made some improvements. But when these are compared to the fast-track changes taking place in K-12 education, designed to raise standards and hold schools accountable, teacher education appears not to have ventured far beyond the status quo.

In a powerful new study, rich with insider information and objective analysis, Arthur E. Levine, the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, casts a cold eye on the current state of teacher education. (“Prominent Teacher-Educator Assails Field, Suggests New Accrediting Body in Report,” Sept. 20, 2006.) It is a good thing that Levine will be taking a new position at a national foundation outside academe (from which he will likely have a platform to advance his ideas); otherwise, he might have been compelled to enter a witness-protection program.

His report, “Educating School Teachers,” says that for all their talk about professionalizing teaching and teacher preparation, teacher education programs have clung to failed traditions that have kept them from addressing the needs of today’s classrooms. For every exemplary teacher education program—for every Stanford, Virginia, Alverno, or Emporia State—there are several more engaged in what Levine calls “the pursuit of irrelevance.” The report charges that teacher education programs are inadequately preparing their graduates to meet the realities of today’s standards-based, accountability-driven classrooms, in which the primary measure of success is student achievement. The study also found that a majority of teacher education graduates are prepared in programs that suffer from low admission and graduation standards. Their faculties, curricula, and research are disconnected from school practice and practitioners. There are wide variations in program quality, with a majority of teachers prepared in lower-quality programs. Both state and accreditation standards for maintaining quality are ineffective.

One of the biggest challenges confronting teacher education, Levine finds, is that the nation has never resolved long-standing conflicting and competing beliefs on issues as basic as when and where teachers should be educated, who should educate them, and what education is most effective.

In particular, Levine notes a schism between those who believe teaching is a profession like law or medicine, requiring a substantial amount of education before becoming a practitioner, and those who think teaching is a craft like journalism, which is learned principally on the job. The debate over whether teaching is a profession or a craft has opened the door to greater variability in what is required to enter teaching, caused a multiplication in the number of pathways into teaching, and led to a diminished role for university-based teacher education programs.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act defines “highly qualified” teachers as persons with subject-matter mastery, but does not require their preparation in traditional university-based teacher education. In addition, 47 states and the District of Columbia have adopted alternative-route programs, designed to speed entry of teachers into the classroom and reduce or eliminate education school coursework.

As a result of low standards and differing answers to tough questions, Levine writes, the preparation of teachers today is the Dodge City of the education world. “Like the fabled Wild West town,” he writes, “[the field] is unruly and chaotic. Anything goes, and the chaos is increasing as traditional programs vie with nontraditional programs, undergraduate programs compete with graduate programs, increased regulation is juxtaposed against deregulation, universities struggle with new teacher education providers, and teachers are alternatively educated for a profession and a craft.”

A few of Levine’s particularly intriguing points are worthy of comment here. A central argument in the report is that the nation is educating the vast majority of future teachers in the weakest programs. Almost nine out of 10 (87 percent) of university-prepared teachers graduate from just three types of institutions (using the Carnegie classifications in existence at the time the study was done): doctoral extensive, doctoral intensive, and master’s-granting universities. More than half (54 percent) are products of master’s-granting universities, but students at public master’s-granting universities have, on average, lower standardized admission-test scores and high school grades than their peers at doctoral universities. The faculties at these master’s-granting institutions are the products of less distinguished graduate schools than those of their colleagues at doctoral universities. They also have higher student-to-faculty ratios and spend less money per student than doctoral institutions.

We must come to consensus about what, where, and how long we should teach the future teacher workforce.

This is a particularly problematic finding. Changing the mix of where we prepare teachers will require dramatically increasing the number of young people at research universities who want to be teachers and who enter teacher-preparation programs. Teacher education programs at these institutions are minuscule compared to the teacher education factories at state colleges. They also have not done a great job in encouraging significantly more minority candidates into the field.

It would take a broad-scale national effort to raise teacher salaries and introduce performance-based pay for more diverse and highly talented students at flagship universities to be encouraged to enter the classroom. Levine recognizes this, and as a first step, proposes the establishment of a federally or philanthropically funded “Rhodes Scholarship” to attract the best and brightest to teaching. A new national teaching-fellowship program for highly accomplished graduates to earn teaching certificates at research universities, he says, could have the effect of increasing the proportion of teachers prepared in this sector. It’s certainly an idea worth trying.

While we should close down poorly performing programs, we also should expand quality programs wherever they are, and not just at the research universities. The nation must recognize and reward master’s-degree programs that are getting the job done and exceeding expectations, and renew efforts to improve those that do only a middling job. Levine provides nine sensible criteria by which to judge which programs should be strengthened and which closed state by state.

Levine also contends that the nation needs much higher standards for entrance and graduation and much better means of quality control. “If teacher education is the Dodge City of the education world,” he writes, “state standards and oversight and national accreditation have been weak sheriffs.” Too many weak programs have achieved state approval. State requirements vary dramatically. For example, the amount of field work required ranges from 30 hours in one state to 300 hours in another, and the number of credits of reading required ranges from 2 to 12.

We also must come to consensus—based on research and information—about what, where, and how long we should teach the future teacher workforce. Currently, a preparation program may be one year or two, four years, or even five, unless it is a campus-based alternative-certification program, in which case any length is possible. Programs are offered at the undergraduate level, the graduate level, or both. Across programs, there is a chasm between theory and practice, and limited fieldwork leaves many students unable to handle the realities of the classroom.

Levine proposes making five-year teacher education programs the norm. The additional year would enable more students to complete a traditional major in a subject area, gain necessary classroom experience, and learn to effectively connect and communicate subject matter to the students they will teach.

Particularly welcome and refreshingly strong is the report’s explicit commitment to using objective data on elementary and secondary school achievement to identify the strengths and weaknesses in teacher-preparation programs. Current efforts by states to develop longitudinal data-collection systems that permit them to follow each student’s academic progress must also be focused on collecting data that will gauge the impact of recent graduates of particular teacher education institutions on student achievement. Using this research, the states would have the capacity to redesign program-approval requirements based on the staffing and curriculum that produce teachers who are effective in promoting student achievement.

Teacher education programs will not have the luxury of waiting 10 years for a new report to be written to make necessary changes.

Levine’s approach to using research and data is particularly welcome. He presents one of the first reports ever to look at the relationship between teacher education and student achievement, and he virtually challenges opponents of his ideas to prove him wrong and offer a better way. If research demonstrates that student achievement improves because of a particular practice or approach to teacher education, we should adopt it. But there’s the rub. To gather the evidence, states and P-16 education systems must build comprehensive data systems that have the capacity to measure student-achievement gains, track the impact of teachers on learning, and draw conclusions about the influence of teacher-preparation programs.

Teacher education programs will not have the luxury of waiting 10 years for a new report to be written to make necessary changes. These data systems are in the works. Sixteen states are developing comprehensive K-16 data systems. Researchers will soon be able to analyze the impact of teachers and their teacher education programs on student achievement. The development of systems to track performance will come as fast as new providers, and faster than higher education is prepared for.

And, whether or not you agree with Levine’s findings or solutions, the overall weight of the argument is overwhelming. This time, states will take notice, and those teacher education programs that do not leave their cul-de-sac and venture out onto the superhighway of real reform will be flattened by regulation or competition.

Read more articles from our Commentary archive.
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2006 edition of Education Week as Taking the Measure Of Teacher Education


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