Educating School Teachers

Arthur Levine
The Education Schools Project
September 2006

In this 140-page report, Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College, Columbia and would-be Abraham Flexner of educator training, seeks to do for teachers what his solid 2005 report did for administrators: appraise the current state of their professional preparation and suggest needed reforms. There is good news ("[we found] excellent teacher education programs at more than a quarter of the schools we visited") and bad news ("Teacher education in the U.S. is principally a mix of poor and mediocre programs."). The hoi polloi of the teacher-prep industry are plebian indeed. That this enormous industry (175,000 university degrees annually) isn't doing an adequate job is hardly news, but having Levine join this reform chorus is a healthy thing. The problem is determining how to rectify the situation. As Levine readily admits, nobody really knows what makes for effective teacher education. Of course, that doesn't stop him from suggesting nine criteria, identifying four exemplary programs and making five big policy recommendations. But readers need to understand that teacher training today lacks the scientific base that equipped Flexner in the early 20th century to prescribe with confidence how physicians should be trained. Levine's policy guidance--such as arguing that ed schools should be less "ivory tower" and more "professional schools focused on classroom practice"--is sensible on its face. But it's hard to get around the fact that neither he nor anyone knows exactly how best to prepare future teachers and what they most need to learn. That's why one should be wary of Levine's implicit push for uniformity and standardization. When a major enterprise doesn't really know how to accomplish its primary goals, serious experimentation and pluralism (coupled with rigorous evaluation) are in order. In teacher preparation, as in K-12 schools themselves, policy makers would be wise to prescribe the desired ends and assessments, then encourage diverse paths to be taken, at least until some of them prove more direct than others. Regrettably, Levine is too close to his own industry to ask still more fundamental questions, such as why the costly, cumbersome "paper credentialing" process that he seeks to reform is worth keeping at all, considering the plentiful evidence that uncredentialed teachers in private and charter schools (and Teach for America, community colleges etc.) do just fine. Despite its limitations, this report is a devastating indictment of teacher education as we know it; of faculty, admissions offices, and curriculum; and of the institutional mechanisms (e.g., NCATE accreditation) that purport to exert quality control today. The teacher-prep emperor is really clad in rags. Only self-interest, inertia, and lack of imagination can explain why so many still prostrate themselves before him.

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