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Curriculum Opinion

The School-College Divide and Teacher Preparation

Rethinking the education school could put an end to the age-old argument over whether teaching is a profession or a craft.
By Arthur E. Levine — December 29, 2006 8 min read
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Arthur E. Levine

In the information economy of 21st-century America, teachers have a job that is fundamentally different from that of past generations of teachers: They must educate all students to achieve history’s highest learning outcomes. To compete globally and sustain a democratic society, the nation requires the most educated population it has ever had. To get decent jobs, our children will need to know more than ever before. The quality of tomorrow in the United States depends fundamentally on the quality of our teacher force.

As the country faces an acute teacher shortage, our 1,200 college- and university-based teacher education programs can make a crucial contribution. But in a four-year study, colleagues and I found that—despite exemplary exceptions—too many of these programs graduate inadequately prepared teachers. Too many maintain low admission and graduation standards; their faculties and curricula are disconnected from school practice and practitioners; their alumni have not learned to teach in standards- based, accountability-driven schools; and accreditation does not ensure their quality.

Responding to the urgent need for more and better teachers, entities other than colleges and universities—federal, state, and local governments, school boards and school districts, for-profit and not-for-profit certification programs—have entered the teacher education arena. The federal No Child Left Behind Act defined “highly qualified” teachers as persons with subject-matter mastery, but not necessarily with preparation in traditional university-based teacher education programs. Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia have alternative routes to fast-track teachers into classrooms and reduce education school coursework.

Such developments reveal a schism between those who consider teaching a profession requiring substantial education before practice and those who consider teaching a craft learned mainly on the job. Even more tellingly, they point to a fundamental gap between K-12 schools and colleges. Although university-based teacher education programs still prepare most of the nation’s teachers, their role is diminishing as pathways into teaching multiply. If those of us who believe in education schools do not seize this moment to clean our own house, America’s university-based teacher education programs may disappear.

“Educating School Teachers,” released in September 2006, reports findings from national surveys of education school deans, faculty members, and alumni, as well as school principals. The research team also developed case studies of 28 schools and departments of education; reviewed education schools’ demographics; and, under the auspices of the Northwest Evaluation Association, examined the relationship between teachers’ preparation and students’ achievement.

This study made it clear: Most teacher education programs do not adequately prepare students in competencies that new teachers need and that schools of education consider their responsibility to teach. Asked to assess their preparation in 11 knowledge areas that principals rated important, 62 percent of teacher education alumni felt unprepared, while only 40 percent of principals considered recent graduates very well or moderately well prepared. Yet 80 percent of education school deans thought nine of these 11 competencies should be learned in education schools, not on the job.

Not surprisingly, a lack of agreement about good teacher preparation has left the curriculum in disarray. Unlike law and medicine, teaching has no consensus on needed entry-level competencies and no common first professional degree. Teacher-candidates can earn one of many degrees and certificates, undergraduate or graduate, in programs lasting a few months, a year, or five years. Requirements for classroom experience vary widely, and insufficient fieldwork hampers many new teachers in their first classrooms. Most curricula—with ambiguous goals, a split between academic and clinical instruction, and an overemphasis on theory—offer too little practical preparation.

Teacher education faculty members themselves are generally disconnected both from the schools and from the higher education disciplines that define content mastery. While 88 percent have at some point taught in a K-12 school, many students complain that professors’ scant or stale classroom experience leaves lessons outdated, thin, and overly theoretical. These same faculty members are also disconnected from colleagues in the arts and sciences, where education school research is frequently considered lacking in rigor.

There is nothing inevitable about the division between schools and colleges. In fact, it is a historical accident. America’s primary schools and colleges began in the 17th century; high schools were not created until the 19th century. From the beginning, these three institutions were disconnected. Worse yet, secondary schools and colleges were initially competitors, vying for students graduating from the elementary/common schools.

As a result, schools and colleges developed independently. Their curricula and governance systems do not mesh. They differ in the preparation of their faculty members, their values and reward systems, their use of time, their methods of assessment, and their finances. The gap between grades 12 and 13 is a consequence of this history and the differences which resulted from it. Had primary schools and secondary schools evolved in the same fashion, we would be troubled today by the schism between grades 8 and 9.

The condition of the nation’s education schools is similar. Created on university campuses in the late 19th century, their reference point—given the split between higher education and the schools—was not K-12 education, but the academy. They needed to win the approval of higher education to survive. Accordingly, they embraced universities’ values over schools’, theory over practice, and academics over practitioners.

Evaluating K-12 Achievement

Quality Counts’ new State Achievement Index emphasizes absolute levels of performance (status) and improvements or changes over time in nearly equal measure. The index is based on 15 individual indicators related to reading and math performance, high school graduation rates, and participation in Advanced Placement courses. States gain or lose points on each indicator based on their performance compared with the national average. State Achievement Index scores differ considerably, from a high of 20 points for Massachusetts to a low of -14 points for Mississippi. The states with the strongest showings consistently display high levels of performance relative to the nation as a whole as well as significant improvements in achievement over time.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2007

Every 30 years or so, beginning in the 1890s, there has been a movement to bring schools and colleges together. Each movement spawned a flurry of reform initiatives, which were generally ephemeral, lasting only so long as pressure and funding from government, the press, and philanthropists persisted.

We are now in the midst of such a movement. The challenge we face is sustainability—expanding and institutionalizing the current crop of school-college initiatives to establish permanent bonds between higher education and the schools.

Education schools and their teacher education programs have the capacity and the responsibility to take the lead in making this happen. They are uniquely qualified to serve as a bridge between the worlds of higher education and the schools. What linkage could be closer to both than a collegiate unit that prepares the teachers and administrators for the schools? But to bridge this gap effectively, education schools will have to make significant changes.

Most importantly, they need to remake themselves into professional schools, focusing on the world of school practice and the work of school practitioners. Education schools need to abandon their fruitless, century-long battle to win over the university by twisting and turning to fit what they perceive to be the academic mold. Instead, their task should be to earn the respect of the schools. Rather than model themselves after colleges of arts and sciences, education schools have to remodel themselves in the image of law schools, medical schools, and the other major professional schools that populate the nation’s campuses. Preparation of the basic practitioner— the teacher—has to become the centerpiece of every school of education’s work. This is what law schools and medical schools do. They are proud to produce lawyers and doctors. They do not shrink from preparing practitioners as education schools have done from the preparation of teachers, regarding teacher education as the least prestigious of their activities.

The preparation of teachers needs to change accordingly. Rather than the current ivory-tower approach, it would be beneficial to follow the example of medical schools and embrace the equivalent of a teaching hospital for instruction. Recommended some years ago by the Holmes Group, a coalition of leading education school deans, and called a professional-development school, the “teaching hospital” in education makes the school the center for teacher education.

While some institutions have adopted this concept, the professional-development school is not yet the centerpiece of reform in teacher education. It is an idea that needs to be brought dramatically to scale, if the bridging of K-12 and higher education through teacher preparation is to be a reality.

The professional-development school brings together university professors, teacher education students, current teachers, and their students. It offers university faculty members continuing contact with schools and sites for practical research. It gives future teachers unparalleled integration of theory and practice, academic and clinical instruction. Teachers are provided professional development and opportunities to teach the next generation of their peers. Schoolchildren have a far richer educational environment, and their achievement becomes the measure of a teacher education program’s success, providing continuous feedback on how to improve the teacher education curriculum.

Advanced Placement

Compared with their Asian and white peers, Latino, black, and Native American high school students are far less likely to earn scores on Advanced Placement tests of 3 or higher, the level typically required to receive college credit for such coursework.


SOURCE: College Board, 2005

While this approach is more expensive and more labor-intensive than most current teacher education programs, these reforms could resolve some major problems for universities, education schools, and K-12. For universities, which face a rising tide of criticism for their disconnection from the schools and the quality of their teacher education programs, this proposal provides a way to address both issues. For education schools, confronted with rising competition from new teacher education providers in an age of alternative routes, it offers the opportunity to lead—to redefine excellence in teacher preparation by linking their universities tightly with the schools and preparing stronger teachers for their classrooms. And for the schools, the approach promises to have universities better serve their needs, to reduce the gap between the 12th and 13th grades, and to better align teacher education with the realities of the classroom. Everyone wins.

But the biggest winners would be our children.


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