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Teacher Education:Time to Tame the Wild West

Results from a new survey show teacher education programs are outdated and lackluster

High student achievement and strong school performance depend heavily on quality teaching. Yet, alarmingly, most of the programs that prepare the nation's teachers cling to an outdated, historically flawed vision of teacher education that is at odds with a society remade by economic changes, demographic shifts, technological advances and globalization.

While exemplary programs do exist around the nation, too many teacher education programs are engaged in the pursuit of irrelevance. They suffer from low admission and graduation standards. Their faculties, curricula and research are disconnected from school practice and practitioners. Program quality varies widely, with the majority of teachers prepared in lower-quality programs, and state regulations and accreditation standards are insufficient to maintain quality.

These are among the findings of Educating School Teachers, a five-year study of the quality of teacher education programs in the U.S. that I conducted as part of the Education Schools Project. The study included national surveys of principals, teacher education graduates, education school deans and faculty, site visits to more than 25 institutions, and separate analyses exploring the relationship between teacher education and student achievement.

There is plenty of blame to go around, but after two decades of fingerpointing, we have yet to improve teacher education.

What we found is a field like the Wild West's Dodge City-unruly and chaotic. Too often, anything goes. At one state university we visited, the majority of prospective teachers were underprepared students from poorly performing local schools, admitted under low admissions standards, taking dumbed-down versions of traditional liberal arts classes. They arranged their own student-teaching assignments, often in failing schools without top-notch teachers to learn from, and they were coached to pass state licensure tests, on which they generally performed in the bottom quartile of all of the state's teacher candidates. Not only has this program not been shut down or cut back, it was recently accredited and will soon offer doctoral degrees.

Who is to blame-the university operating the program, the state rewarding its failure, the accreditors using such misguided standards, or the districts hiring its graduates? There is plenty of blame to go around, but after two decades of fingerpointing, we have yet to improve teacher education.

Part of the problem is that a fundamental difference in philosophy still divides 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, learned principally on the job. 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 alternately educated for a profession and a craft. Largely because of this basic schism, as many as three-quarters of the nation's teacher education programs, according to our analysis, are plagued by deep, often interrelated problems.

Inadequate Preparation

Many students graduate from teacher education programs without the skills and knowledge to become effective teachers. More than three out of five teacher education alumni surveyed (62 percent) report that schools of education do not prepare their graduates to cope with the realities of today's classrooms. Only 41 percent believe they were prepared to integrate technology into the grade level or subject they teach, only 43 percent feel prepared to work with parents, and a scant 27 percent of teachers surveyed feel they can adequately address the needs of students with limited English proficiency.

A fundamental difference in philosophy still divides 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, learned principally on the job.

Principals also give teacher education programs low grades. Fewer than half of principals surveyed thought that schools of education were preparing teachers very well or moderately well to integrate technology into their teaching (46 percent), use student performance assessment techniques (42 percent), and implement curriculum and performance standards (41 percent). Only one-third said that their teachers are very or moderately well prepared to maintain order in the classroom (33 percent) or to address the needs of students with disabilities (30 percent). A shockingly low percentage of principals said that their teachers were very or moderately well prepared to meet the needs of students from diverse cultural backgrounds (28 percent), to work with parents (21 percent), and to help students with limited English proficiency (16 percent).

A Curriculum in Disarray

Unlike law and medicine, in education there is no standard approach to preparing teachers. The length of programs varies from one to five years, and programs are offered at the undergraduate level, the graduate level, or both. Across programs, there is a chasm between theory and practice, and limited field work leaves many students unable to handle classroom realities.

A Disconnected Faculty

While almost nine out of ten (88 percent) education school professors have taught in a school at some point in their careers, alumni and students complain that too often the experiences of faculty members were not recent or long enough. As a result, they say, lessons are often dated, theory-heavy, and limited in content. The curriculum lacks continuity from one course to the next, and course work and field work are insufficiently integrated. In addition to being disconnected from schools, faculty members remain disconnected from the rest of the university because their faculty peers consider their research unsophisticated.

Low Admissions Standards

Universities use their teacher education programs as "cash cows," requiring them to generate revenue to fund more prestigious departments, a situation that forces teacher education programs to increase enrollments and lower admissions standards. Schools with low admissions standards also tend to have low graduation requirements. While the scores of aspiring secondary school teachers are comparable to those of other students on SAT and GRE exams, future elementary school teachers' GRE scores are 100 points below the national average.

Insufficient Quality Control

Both state quality control mechanisms and the peer review process of accreditation fail to maintain a sufficiently high floor for the nation's teacher education programs because requirements focus on process, not substance. 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.

Accreditation by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education does not ensure program quality. Of 100 graduate schools of education ranked by U.S. News and World Report, three of the top ten are accredited, versus eight of the lowest ten. Furthermore, data compiled by a research and testing organization, the Northwest Evaluation Association, shows no difference in student math or reading achievement based on whether their teachers were certified at NCATE or non-NCATE accredited institutions.

Disparities in Institutional Quality

More than half (54 percent) of teachers are products of masters-granting universities, whose students have, on average, lower standardized test scores and high school grades than their peers at doctoral universities. The faculty at masters-granting institutions are products of less distinguished graduate schools than their colleagues at doctoral universities. These universities also have higher student-to-faculty ratios and spend less money per student than doctoral institutions.

Effects on Student Achievement

Most importantly, teachers educated at different types of universities had discernibly different impacts on students' learning. With the help of NWEA, the study examined the correlations among many characteristics of nearly 2,400 K-12 teachers. The study found a significant correlation between the type of university a teacher attended to prepare for certification and his or her students' achievement growth. Controlling for experience, the study found that students whose teachers were prepared at masters-granting universities have significantly lower growth in math and somewhat lower growth in reading than those whose teachers were prepared at doctoral universities. This initial research provides further evidence of a critical imbalance: The universities that prepare a majority of teachers are less effective than the research institutions that prepare relatively few teachers.

Taking Action

New and improved teacher education programs cannot compensate for needed action by state and local governments and school boards on matters like teacher salaries, incentives and working conditions. Nor can it improve the ancillary effect of low salaries: the low prestige of teaching. However, better teacher education programs can improve the quality of the nation's teaching force which, in turn, will lead to improved student performance. Here is a five-part plan to dramatically strengthen the quality of teacher education nationwide:

1. Transform education schools into professional schools focused on school practice. Rather than continue to try to fit into the arts and sciences research model, education schools must embrace the reality that teaching is a profession, not a craft, and that they are professional schools. They should refocus their work on the world of practice. Just as medical schools focus on hospitals and law schools on the courts, education schools should be grounded in schools. We need the teacher education equivalent of teaching hospitals. Some such schools exist today: "professional development schools," which are regular public schools that bring together university professors and their students with school teachers and their students for the purpose of enriching education, research, and professional development. We need far more of these.

2. Focus on student achievement as the primary measure of the success of teacher education programs. The measure of a teacher's effectiveness is the performance of students in the classroom. The measure of a teacher education program's success is how well the students taught by its graduates perform academically.

To assess teacher and teacher education program performance, states need to develop longitudinal data collection systems in order to follow each student's academic progress and link it to the school from which the student's teacher graduated. A number of states are already doing this. The data collected by such systems can be used not only to improve schools and enhance the achievement of their students, but to ascertain the impact on student achievement of recent graduates of particular teacher education institutions. This system would also enable us to begin answering a number of basic questions about teacher education: What type of teacher preparation best promotes classroom learning? What curriculum produces the best teachers? What faculty qualifications matter most? Using this research, the states could redesign teacher education program requirements based on solid evidence.

3. Make five-year teacher education programs the norm. Teacher preparation programs should be designed as five-year "enriched majors" rather than watered-down versions of the traditional undergraduate concentration. Teacher education students should be required to complete a traditional major in a core subject area, to provide content mastery, then learn to communicate that subject matter effectively in master's-level study, providing them with an education in teaching and child development.

4. Establish effective mechanisms for teacher education quality control. If the teacher education field is Dodge City, then accreditation bodies are the weak sheriffs. It is time to rethink accreditation and to encourage top schools' participation in developing standards and enforcement mechanisms. New accreditation standards should root measures of success in hard data on student achievement and expand accreditation to include noncollegiate education programs. The revamped state requirements discussed above will aid in these reforms.

5. Close some programs, expand others and give outstanding students incentives to enter teaching. Teacher education in the U.S. is principally a mix of weak and mediocre programs. Universities have an obligation to evaluate the quality of their teacher education programs. They should establish a timetable of no more than five years for closing poor programs, while also strengthening promising programs and expanding strong programs. States will need to seed the cost of program expansion and offer scholarships targeted at future teachers with the requirement that they teach in that state's public schools after graduation. The federal government should establish a selective scholarship to attract the best and brightest to teaching and to upgrade the status of the profession. This could be a teaching fellowship program for highly accomplished graduates to earn teaching certificates at research universities.

Four out of the five recommendations could be enacted tomorrow. The fifth, longitudinal data systems to track teacher performance, will take time to implement, but several states already have such projects under way.

Improving the quality of teaching will be an uphill battle until the nation is ready to pay teachers more. But that's no excuse not to clean up Dodge City. We must ensure that the programs preparing our teachers are held to high standards and are truly engaged in the pursuit of excellence, rather than irrelevance.

Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J., and the president emeritus of Teachers College, Columbia University.