Levine versus the ed schools

Justin Torres

Only Nixon, it is said, could go to China, and perhaps only Arthur Levine could go to our schools of education. (The analogy is flawed since Nixon, upon arrival, did not proceed to bash the Chinese government, but you get the point.) This week, Levine, president of Columbia University's Teachers College, released the first report in a planned series on education schools, the fruit of a four-year study that included national surveys of deans and faculty and a host of site visits and syllabus research. This one, called "Educating School Leaders," looks at leadership training programs for principals and superintendents. Future editions will include reports on teacher training and education research.

Though the early pages laud (at great length) the wondrous diversity of American ed schools, when he gets down to brass tacks Levine could hardly be more clear—or more damning. Assessed against nine criteria spanning curriculum, faculty, admission standards, and financial resources, the majority of education leadership programs, he says, "range from inadequate to appalling, even at some of the nation's leading universities." Ed school leadership programs fail collectively on every one of Levine's nine criteria. For example:

Their curricula are disconnected from the needs of leaders and their schools. Their admission standards are among the lowest in American graduate schools. Their professoriate is ill-equipped to educate school leaders. Their programs pay insufficient attention to clinical education and mentorship by successful practitioners. The degrees they award are inappropriate to the needs of today's schools and school leaders. Their research is detached from practice. And their programs receive insufficient resources.

Levine blasts ed schools for engaging in a "race to the bottom" to shovel degrees out the door, the better to satisfy school districts that award raises and bonuses for graduate credit, no matter the quality of the program or its applicability to what a principal or superintendent actually does. Curricula are often disconnected from the actual needs of school leaders, as these schools seek to ape the arts/sciences model of graduate education without resting upon the body of scholarly research and evidence that sustains other graduate programs. In short, they're a mess, with only a few bright spots (Vanderbilt's Peabody and Wisconsin-Madison among them) in their dim universe.

Levine's report is a self-conscious attempt to emulate the celebrated 1910 "Flexner Report," funded by the Carnegie Corporation. Flexner famously excoriated the quacks, phrenologists, and snake-oil salesmen that populated medical education at the time. (See here for an account.) His report is credited for sparking wide-ranging reforms that made America's physician training programs the most rigorous and respected in the world. Let's hope Levine's project has the same effect on education schools.

One important difference, however, is that Flexner named the names of flawed institutions as well as good ones. Levine doubtless wants to be gentlemanly, as well as to retain his invitation to the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, but if the nation's ed leadership programs are as awful as he suggests, he ought to identify (and excoriate) specific programs. Yet he plays coy, for example, in describing Eminent University Graduate School of Education, on the palm-tree-lined campus of a newer but prestigious research university, where one administrator admitted that some students have GRE scores "just above what you get for filling out the form" and the dean referred to off-campus satellite facilities as "a festering sore." Well, if Berkeley—there, I've said it—is wasting taxpayer money admitting morons and foisting them off on California school districts as highly trained professionals, then maybe the time has come to be candid about it.

This is the central flaw in Levine's otherwise compelling study: circumspection and an occasional unwillingness to go where the evidence leads. He does call for leadership programs to be evaluated rigorously and the weak members of the herd to be culled, a good start. And one of his recommendations—states and districts should stop handing out raises for graduate credits—gets to the heart of the rotten bargain many of these schools have cut: full-tuition-paying students (or increased state subsidies) in exchange for open admission and low standards. But Levine studiously avoids mentioning the possibility of a value-added component to determining raises and bonuses for administrators, and in the end, remains focused on process, not outcomes.

He urges that the Ph.D. in education be reserved for future scholars and professors, while the Ed.D. should be eliminated as a monstrous waste of time and energy (and he's certainly right there), while a new M.B.A.-like master's degree should be instituted to impart real-life school administration skills. Not bad. But the new "master's in ed administration" that he proposes begs the question: why not get an M.B.A. in the first place? Why not create "education" tracks within M.B.A. programs, much as happened with M.B.A.'s in "non-profit management" or "health care systems"?

Alternatively, let's drop the ed leadership programs altogether and allow states and school districts to seek the skills they need, whether for a principalship or the central office, from whoever possesses them—lawyers or accountants or retired colonels or wherever the needed skills lie. That was the suggestion of the joint Fordham-Broad manifesto, Better Leaders for America's Schools, now almost two years old but highly relevant to this debate. (And which, we're gratified to see, Levine notes and even offers qualified praise.)

Let us not be too negative. Arthur Levine has done a tremendous service to the education leadership debate by telling the truth—however qualified, masked, or edited his statements sometimes are. Our schools of education are a disaster. They aren't doing their job. Where we disagree with Dr. Levine is the question of whether they will ever be capable of doing the job that needs doing.

Meanwhile, we await with some eagerness his next installment, due this fall.

Justin Torres is research director of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

"Educating School Leaders," by Arthur Levine, Teachers College, March 2005

"Study blasts leadership preparation," by Jeff Archer, Education Week, March 16

"Principals pass, then fail," USA Today, March 14, 2005

"Study: School leaders poorly educated," by Ben Feller, Associated Press, March 15, 2005

"Principals who can lead," Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 15, 2005

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