Taming The Wild West of Teacher Education

Radical solutions to the problem of teaching teachers

When Educating School Teachers, the Education Schools Project report on university-based teacher education programs, was released in mid-September, the dismay was immediate. In the report, Columbia Teachers College president emeritus Arthur Levine blasted the preparation of teachers today, calling the field “the Dodge City of the education world”—unruly and chaotic. Much like the gunshots in that infamous town, protests rang out: “In particular, we challenge the need to start from scratch to strengthen quality control and accountability,” stated the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Drawn from the most extensive study ever conducted into the strengths, weaknesses, and overall performance of the more than 1,200 schools and departments of education at colleges and universities across the country, Educating School Teachers presents some sobering findings and profound, sweeping recommendations. In this exclusive summary, Levine shares the report’s key points for administrators.

America needs more teachers and better teachers. Our country’s university-based schools of education, which prepare the vast majority of the 3 million teachers nationwide, can make an important contribution to fulfilling both needs.

But to do so, higher education leaders and policymakers must put many of the nation’s 1,200 university-based teacher education programs on a new path. Today’s teacher education programs are inadequately preparing graduates to meet the realities of today’s standards-based, accountability-driven classrooms, in which the primary measure of
success is student achievement.

While the four-year study I conducted with a team of researchers and journalists revealed some exemplary university-based teacher education programs, we found that a majority of graduates are prepared in programs that suffer from low standards for admissions and graduation. Their faculties, curricula, and research are disconnected from school practice and practitioners. Both state and accreditation standards for maintaining quality are ineffective. These problems exist largely because the nation has never come to consensus on issues as basic as when and where teachers should be educated, who should educate teachers, and what education is most effective in preparing teachers.

As a result, the preparation of teachers today is the Dodge City of the education world. Like the fabled Wild West town, the field is unruly and chaotic—and the chaos is increasing.

Disagreement on core issues

There is a schism between those who believe teaching is a profession, like law or medicine, requiring substantial education before practice, and those who think teaching is a craft, like journalism, learned principally on the job. This lack of consensus has opened the door to wide variability in pathways into teaching and entry requirements for teaching, as well as a diminished role for university-based teacher education programs.

No Child Left Behind defined “highly qualified” teachers as persons with subject matter mastery but not necessarily with preparation in traditional university-based teacher education programs. Additionally, 47 states and the District of Columbia have adopted alternative programs to speed entry of teachers into the classroom and reduce or eliminate education school coursework. Thanks to this array of approaches, 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 alternatively educated for a profession and a craft.

How the report was done

The study, results of which were released last month in the report Educating School Teachers, included national surveys of deans, chairs, and directors of education schools, education school faculty members, teacher education alumni, and school principals. Researchers also visited and developed case studies of 28 schools and departments of education, chosen to reflect the diversity of the United States’ education schools by region, control, religion, racial composition, gender, and institutional classifications.

Under the auspices of the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), researchers also studied the relationship between teachers’ preparation and students’ achievement in math and reading classes. In addition, the project team oversaw a series of studies (supplemented by databases from other organizations) on education schools’ characteristics, the programs they offer, the credentials of their faculty, and the degrees they award, as well as an examination of doctoral dissertations.

Key Findings:
Inadequate preparation

Observers of teacher preparation agree on one point: Teacher education programs are not adequately preparing graduates for the classroom. Surveys of principals, education school faculty, deans, and alumni asked all four groups to evaluate education school graduates’ preparation in 11 skill and knowledge areas that principals rated as important for newly hired teachers. More than three out of five of the alumni (62 percent) felt their programs did not prepare graduates to cope with today’s classroom realities. Principals also were critical: Only 40 percent thought education schools were preparing new teachers very well or moderately well.

Since no professional school can possibly teach graduates everything they need to know before taking a job, the deans were asked if education schools were the most appropriate place to prepare teachers in each of the 11 competencies. In nine of the 11 areas, more than 80 percent of deans said education schools were, indeed, the most appropriate place to acquire the competency.

The inescapable conclusion is that the nation’s university-based teacher education programs are not adequately preparing students in competencies that principals say teachers need and that schools of education regard as their responsibility to teach.

A curriculum in disarray

The teacher education curriculum’s fundamental weakness is the lack of agreement about what it should produce. In this regard, the education of teachers differs significantly from that of most other professionals. Law and medicine, for instance, have reached basic consensus on what entry-level practitioners should know and be able to do, and so a law school or medical school can construct a curriculum that specifies what is studied, when it is studied, how long it is studied, and which credential is awarded on completion.

Teaching lacks a common first professional degree; students can earn a host of degrees and certificates. Nor do prospective teachers have a uniform length of study. A teacher preparation program may take one year or two, four years or even five—unless it is a campus-based alternative certification program, in which case any length is possible. Programs are offered at the undergraduate level, the graduate level, or both. Across programs, there is a chasm between theory and practice, and limited fieldwork leaves many students unable to handle the realities of the classroom.

Teacher education faculty, as one dean of a premier education school explained in an interview, are generally preoccupied with questions of “how”: How long should student teaching be? How many methods courses should students take? At the same time, they overlook the “what”: What constitutes an effective teacher? What skills and knowledge does a teacher need to advance student learning? The resulting curriculum—with ambiguous goals, a split between academic and clinical instruction, and an overemphasis on the academic—is incapable of achieving desired outcomes for graduates.

Disconnected faculty

Teacher education faculty, like the curriculum, mirror the profession’s historical conflicts and confusions. To begin with, faculty are disconnected from the schools. While nearly nine out of 10 (88 percent) have taught in a school at some point, alumni and students complain that most professors’ classroom experience is scant or stale. As a result, they say, lessons are often outdated, thin in content, more theoretical than practical, and disconnected from real policy and practice. The curriculum is fractured, with a lack of continuity from one course to the next and insufficient integration between coursework and fieldwork.

Teacher education faculty tend to be disconnected not only from K–12 classrooms but also from colleagues in higher education. With an almost unbridgeable chasm between arts and sciences scholars and education faculty, education school research is frequently seen in other disciplines as lacking in rigor, an attitude that promotes further isolation.