This week, the National Council on Teacher Quality issued a report on teacher education in America that looked at 1,130 university programs. While the report overreached in its attempt to rate individual programs because of thin data, in aggregate it presented a deeply disturbing picture of teacher preparation in the United States. It described a field in disarray with low admission standards, a crazy quilt of varying and inconsistent programs, and disagreement on issues as basic as how to prepare teachers or what skills and knowledge they need to be effective. The report found few excellent teacher-education programs, and many more that were failing. Most were rated as mediocre or poor.
This would be shocking if studies showing the same thing hadn’t been issued regularly in recent decades. What is shocking is that teacher education hasn’t responded in more than cursory fashion, often just criticizing the studies—though a number of institutions have substantially strengthened and sometimes transformed their programs, more than the NCTQ report acknowledges.
With a small number of exceptions, university-based teacher-education programs have lost the confidence of their publics—government, funders and growing numbers of school districts. Indeed, in the past month, four different pieces of legislation have been introduced in Congress to regulate teacher education. Two would establish charter education schools, empowering organizations other than universities to prepare teachers if they can demonstrate high admission standards, rigorous programs and outstanding outcomes.
New York already permits this. In fact, all 50 states and the District of Columbia now allow alternative routes to becoming a teacher, which may or may not include universities. Organizations such as Teach For America and the New Teacher Project have flourished in recruiting high-performers to become teachers and placing them in classrooms after only a few weeks of intensive preparation. New, freestanding education schools are being formed, such as the Relay Graduate School of Education, spun off from Hunter College in New York City; the Boston Teacher Residency, established by the Boston Public Schools; and the charter-school-based High Tech High in San Diego and Match in Boston. For-profit companies have entered the field as well.
The point is this: University-based teacher-education programs are in trouble and could possibly lose their franchise. Can they be repaired, or must they be replaced?
In recent years, the focus has been increasingly on replacement, out of understandable frustration with an organization that knows its problems but ignores or refuses to fix them. However, there is also a case to be made for repair.
The main reason for repairing university-based teacher preparation is the Willie Sutton principle. When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton is rumored to have said, “That’s where the money is.” Over 90 percent of new teachers are still educated at universities; therefore, universities are where future teachers are. Important, too, is the fact that research doesn’t indicate that either university or non-university programs are more effective.
Another rationale for repair is that it’s cheaper. University-based teacher-education programs are self-sustaining. Students pay tuition to attend, while many of the other initiatives must be continually subsidized.
Universities are unique, as well, in their resources. They not only have education faculty; they also have faculty in fields like math, history, physics and English to prepare educators in the subjects they’ll teach.
Finally, universities are capable of creating strong programs. The Woodrow Wilson Foundation is working with 22 universities in four states to create exemplary STEM teacher-education programs. In varying degrees, each of these universities has created a model worthy of emulation.
So what should be done—repair or replace teacher preparation? We must do both. If we choose, we lose. In the short run, repair is essential to producing the volume of teachers the nation needs. In the longer run, replacement will not only break the virtual university monopoly on teacher education and introduce competition, but will also allow us to create the models of teacher education that a global, digital information economy demands.
Repair requires two things: self-policing by the profession, and state-based action to drive the repair.
In academe, self-policing is known as accreditation. In the past, the likelihood that accreditation might raise teacher-education standards was, at best, remote. However, an important recent development could move the needle. The two teacher-education accreditors, which enjoyed reputations comparable to the teacher-education programs they approved, have merged. The new organization, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, has formulated criteria that focus on high admission standards, rigorous programs and effective learning outcomes in graduates’ classrooms. Annual reporting is required. If this accreditation process is enacted, teacher education, a disordered and lawless Dodge City, could have a new sheriff in town. These changes can begin within a year, but cannot be completed for at least seven, given current accreditation terms.
States need to jump-start the process. Most have the authority to review current teacher-education programs, close the failing ones and invest in the strong ones. This is the perfect moment to do so, not only because of the steady tattoo of criticism, but because most states are hiring fewer teachers than they have in the past and can demand the best.
The replacement strategy should build upon the repair effort. Congress should pass an amended version of legislation entitled the GREAT Act, which establishes academies or charter education schools. To participate, states would have to agree to close their failing education schools. It doesn’t make sense to create new teacher-education programs while maintaining bad ones—this would only be an expensive Band-Aid.
The bottom line: Marrying repair and replacement strategies for teacher education offers the best opportunity to change the way we prepare the teachers our nation and our children need.
Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Previously, he served as president and professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University.