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Posted at 11:15 AM ET, 10/30/2009

Levine: Ed schools should grab Duncan's lifeline--and not 'carp' about his critique

By Valerie Strauss

Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia University's Teachers College, and president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, is my guest today.

By Arthur Levine
In a policy speech highly critical of teacher education, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan threw a lifeline to the nation’s schools of education.

The speech represents a reversal of a recent trend: Government and philanthropy have tended to turn away from education schools, increasingly viewing them as poor in quality and unwilling to change.

Instead, the states have adopted alternative routes to the teaching profession which reduce the role of education schools in preparing teachers, while a legion of new non-university teacher preparation programs, such as Teach for America, and for-profit companies, such as Kaplan, have come into being.

In his speech at Teachers College last week, Secretary Duncan called for “revolutionary change” in teacher education at the nation’s universities.

He urged them to focus on student learning in the classes that their alumni teach; move preparation of new teachers into the schools; emphasize the use of data in improving teaching; implement teacher mentoring programs; and adopt curriculums that are coherent, up-to-date, and based in subject matter.

As factors that contribute to diminishing the quality of teacher education, he cited both weak licensing and hiring practices, on the part of states and school districts, and universities’ practice of using teacher education programs as cash cows.

The secretary said that the administration would invest in raising the quality of university-based teacher education, believing in the promise and potential of many of the country’s education schools. While not fashionable, this is a courageous and wise policy decision for several reasons.

The first is capacity. Education schools still prepare over 80 percent of the nation’s teachers. This is the Willie Sutton rationale: When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton said, “That’s where the money is.”

Second, education school change is self-sustaining. Where a number of the new teacher education providers require annual philanthropy to continue their work, education schools are funded by tuition dollars and can therefore make reforms that become part of their ongoing programs.

Third, universities are the only teacher educators that have subject matter expertise—in the person of arts and sciences faculty in areas such as math, science and language. Depth in this kind of expertise is essential to preparing strong teachers.

Fourth and finally, despite the widespread criticism, there is little evidence that universities are less effective than the alternatives in producing teachers. At the same time, there are a number of university-based teacher preparation programs that have already demonstrated promising practices, or that can be strengthened, given a genuine institutional commitment.

Secretary Duncan’s focus on improving education schools and his willingness to commit federal dollars to this task represent a smart investment for the country. And education schools will be making a great error if they carp at the secretary’s critique.

He is offering them an extraordinary opportunity. They need to seize the lifeline being thrown to them. Unless they demonstrate that they can be successful in implementing reforms, such help will be unlikely to come again in the future.

By Valerie Strauss  | October 30, 2009; 11:15 AM ET
Tags:  Education Secretary Arne Duncan, education schools  
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