Back To The Future

The grande dame of American schools of education gets a makeover and reconnects with its activist roots.

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The entrance to Main Hall is boarded up, cordoned off by yellow construction tape and plywood fencing. Inside, signs warn: "Danger. Construction Area. Keep Out."

The cacophony of hammer and drill is the most noticeable sign of a larger construction project under way at Columbia University's Teachers College. Five years ago, Arthur Levine, a longtime Harvard education administrator, became the school's president and embarked on the formidable task of transforming the grande dame of American schools of education. Founded in 1887 to prepare teachers for the poor and immigrant students who were pouring into New York City, the college was the training ground for scores of progressive educators in the early decades of this century. Today, it is the nation's largest graduate school of education and one of the most eminent.

In recent years, however, some have felt that "TC," as the college is known in New York, was resting on its laurels. "The place had become sort of moribund and was choking on itself," explains Thomas Sobol, the school's Christian A. Johnson professor of outstanding educational practice.

But Levine's plans for the college are breathing new life into the college--and stirring up new controversy. His goals--reconnecting the college with its activist roots and linking the worlds of theory and practice--are meant to leave a deep mark on public education. "A lot of America thinks our schools are burning, and we ought to have answers," Levine says. Institutions like his, he believes, should provide those solutions.

Levine, an ebullient 50-year-old scholar and previously a top official at the Institute for Educational Management at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has certainly shaken things up. An academic reorganization has consolidated 17 departments into nine that report directly to the dean. An annual operating deficit has been replaced with modest surpluses. And top-notch faculty members have been lured away from other institutions at the same time that tenure requirements have increased.

In November, Teachers College will launch the largest financial undertaking in its history: a five-year, $140 million capital campaign to bolster financial aid, repair aging buildings, and pay for a host of other improvements.

At the same time, new institutes and programs are reaching out to journalists, governors, superintendents, and opinion leaders and exploring such topics as the move toward privatization and vouchers. "Above all, I think [Levine's] injected life into the college and opened it up," says Judith Burton, a professor of arts education. "And he's been very supportive of anybody who'd like to take on anything new."

This summer, in what Levine describes as the most radical undertaking of his presidency, the faculty and the board of trustees unanimously approved a technology plan that is designed to extend Teachers College far beyond its campus in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan. The plan calls for creating a semiautonomous foundation that will identify promising educational technology ventures, support the development of new products and services, and work with outside partners. "It's too strong to say we're creating another college," says Levine. "What's not too strong is to say we're creating a whole other way to do education."

Levine, a self-described technophobe who still does much of his writing on yellow notepads, says he sees the plan as a way to exploit a golden opportunity in education. "Suddenly, there's a brand new way of communicating, with a capacity to reach a larger audience than you ever imagined."

The transformation of Teachers College remains a work in progress, however, and Levine is not without his critics. A high-tech conference center wired for computers and videoconferencing sits amid abandoned elevator shafts, stairwells with peeling paint, and lecture rooms that haven't changed much in 100 years. Also, the school is structured so that some departments on the cutting edge of research and teaching coexist with one- and two-person programs that haven't been revisited in years.

So far, Levine has devoted much of his energy to reorganizing the college's academic departments and its Byzantine governance structure. In this, he has sought to involve the faculty by encouraging professors to work together to propose and form new departments.

But some branches of knowledge have not fared well under the reorganization. The psychology faculty, for example, has been scattered across several departments. A decision to abolish departments such as mathematics and sciences education and integrate them with the rest of the college has also led to charges that TC is downplaying traditional disciplines. Levine "has orchestrated changes that, in the long run, in my opinion, are going to damage the academic reputation of the college," says Bruce Vogeli, a professor of mathematical education who has been at the school for 35 years. "There's too much emphasis on reforming society through education and not on providing teachers with what the fundamental components of teaching should be, and that is knowledge."

A spring 1998 article in City Journal by Heather MacDonald echoed that complaint. MacDonald, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, faulted the college for what she described as an obsession with multiculturalism and group learning and an "anything but knowledge" credo that she claims permeates U.S. schools of education.

Levine objects to this assessment. "Education schools are under attack for two reasons," he says. Only one of them, he adds, is valid: "There are a fair number of weak education schools around the country." The second, he says, is politically motivated. "It's an attack by the right," he explains. "And it takes educational issues--like student-centered learning, whole language versus phonics, lecture instruction versus group work--and makes them political issues."

It remains to be seen how the current overhaul will fare. "The basic processes of the college really don't work very well at all," says John Black, chairman of the Faculty Executive Committee and a professor of computing and education.

"It might have been more effective fixing those things first. Instead, we spent a lot of time and energy and emotion figuring out the reorganization chart."

Given the problems that persist, most agree that the college is in much better shape than it was five years ago. Still, Levine has his work cut out for him. At the same time he is looking to the needs of Teachers College, he also has an eye on the bigger picture: the future of public education. "We need higher scores, greater skill levels, and more knowledge than any generation has ever needed before," he says, "and our schools, for the most part, are incapable of providing it."

In many ways, Teachers College faces those same challenges. "To the extent that we are disconnected in ivory towers, we become irrelevant," Levine says. "And that's my big fear about education schools. I fear that the best could become irrelevant, and the worst could become so poor in quality that nobody wants to turn to them. And if either or both of those things happen, education schools will become an endangered species."

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 20-21

Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as Back To The Future
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