From 2010 to 2015, hundreds of university-based programs for educating teachers and school leaders were either eliminated or became mere shadows of their former selves. This report briefly examines why.
This dramatic trend results primarily from the convergence of several powerful forces in the field, to which most institutions of higher education were unable—or unwilling—to respond. Here are a few:
• Most public school systems, spurred on by federal and state policies, virtually eliminated pay increases for educators based on the number of college credits earned, and substituted various forms of “performance pay.” This not only reduced the monetary incentives for educators to take additional university coursework, but also motivated those who did pursue graduate-level professional enhancement to seek out programs that could offer proof that they substantially increased a graduate’s expertise in the specific fields being studied.
• Faced with budget problems, many school systems also dropped the financial subsidies they had once provided for taking advanced courses.
• The growth of charters and the deregulation of licensure requirements for teaching in and leading schools strengthened “alternative” routes to licensure (or made licensure irrelevant), especially for school administrators.
• The demands for school and district accountability encouraged larger school systems to strengthen their own capacity for professional training, and to link that capacity to ongoing teacher evaluation and leadership development.
• With the support of foundation grants, federal money, and technical expertise from consulting companies, school systems developed sophisticated, data-driven human-resource-development programs that allowed them to directly target training needs and draw on the expertise of their own staff members.
This particular outcome was furthered by the adoption in many districts of differentiated staffing, which provided roles for teachers with special expertise to play in fostering the professional development of other teachers, thus filling functions previously performed by colleges and universities.
The ability of districts—and private providers—to offer training was enhanced by the commercial development of materials (case studies, short courses, learning activities, modular learning units, and so on) that significantly reduced the cost of resource development, as well as the perceived need for in-depth expertise.
• Non-university providers of professional development took advantage of changes in district incentives, the inability of universities to act quickly and adapt to the particular needs of districts, and their own superior marketing skills to provide individual districts and district consortia with customized professional-development programs.
• New technologies, such as immersive learning environments, significantly increased both the attraction and the efficacy of Web-facilitated learning that could be targeted to the needs of individual educators and smaller groups.
• Changes in professional-development funding provisions in the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act were finally passed by Congress in 2011, and included requirements for training school leaders in ways that involved extensive use of internships, which did not fit the way universities were structured and faculty workloads were determined.
These changes, together with unprecedented criticism of university-based teacher- and leader-preparation programs from some in the Obama administration, sank many colleges of education, or left them clinging to life rafts going nowhere.
Some, however, emerged in 2015 as strong as, or stronger than, they were in 2010. These were institutions that undertook careful recalibrations of their programs, involving variations of four strategies.
First, they developed solid evidence to confirm that their graduates would have an enhanced ability to improve the learning of the students they served.
Second, these thriving colleges of education changed the mix of their faculty in accord with changes in how they promoted the professional learning of school personnel. They reduced the share of the faculty’s effort invested in graduate-degree programs, for example, and increased the number and the breadth of learning opportunities meant to serve particular professional needs. Simultaneously, they increased the proportion of faculty members who had exceptional abilities and experience in working with school personnel. Such staffing changes helped produce more-meaningful partnerships with school districts. The colleges of education became trainers of school personnel who, in turn, provided much of the professional development in their districts.
Third, these successful colleges of education took advantage of their faculties’ breadth of expertise to work with districts and states to develop comprehensive strategies for school improvement—a contribution to student learning that few non-university providers of school assistance could meet. They also capitalized on their research capacity to provide support and direction for both schools and policymakers not available from other professional-development providers, and worked with academic units within their universities—including professional schools—to develop resources and activities with a proven record of success not only for school systems, but also for private companies in the professional-development business.
Fourth, the colleges of education that thrived collaborated with for-profit and nonprofit organizations to develop learning technologies and resources, and then partnered with these organizations and with professional associations to provide educators with new and high-level learning opportunities.
Many of the changes in colleges of education identified in this report are not fully realized, and it is too early to tell what impact they will have on K-12 school improvement. It is clear, however, that in 2015, colleges of education can and do provide educators with access to timelier and more-focused professional-learning opportunities, and that their quality has built a market for university-based programs that did not exist just a few short years ago—in 2010.
A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week as The 2015 Report on Colleges of Education