Education schools are under attack--yet again. But don’t yawn and assume that this, too, shall pass. For unlike innumerable previous assaults, which these institutions withstood with awesome obstinacy, this one may actually crack their fortified walls. That’s no sure thing, of course, given the history of failed attempts at reform in this area. But the current combination of forces at work on them, from Education Secretary Arne Duncan to the budgetary woes of state governments, may be weakening those rampart walls enough to yield some overdue change in how teachers (and principals) are prepared.

Duncan has officially added ed schools to his lengthening list of major components of American education that are not getting the job done. In recent speeches at UVA’s Curry School of Education and Columbia’s Teachers College, the Secretary laid it out plain: For the most part, ed schools churn our mediocre teachers, have no mechanisms for self-evaluation, and are located in states that have low certification standards. We need a “sea-change in our schools of education,” he declared at Columbia.

In particular, Duncan emphasized the disconnect between teacher effectiveness and where the teacher was trained. At Curry, he put it this way: “In all but a few states, education schools act as the Bermuda Triangle of higher education--students sail in but no one knows what happens to them after they come out. No one knows which students are succeeding as teachers, which are struggling, and what training was useful or not.” To remedy this problem, Duncan says ed schools should tie student achievement data back to individual teachers, adopt more residency programs like those used for aspiring doctors, and teach would-be teachers how to use data as an effective tool to appraise and get feedback on student achievement and their own classroom practice.

Jawboning, yes, but the development and refinement of value-added assessment, the widening use of data-based decision-making in education, and the improvement of state and district data systems, have made Duncan’s proposals more realistic. And it doesn’t hurt that his Department is making the capacity to link pupil achievement data to teacher evaluations one of the criteria for Race to the Top funds. Money-hungry states’ yearning for those federal dollars may make them more inclined to take Duncan seriously. Another power player in teacher preparation has also hinted that it’s on board. Jim Cibulka, President of NCATE, responded to Duncan’s Columbia talk by saying that his organization will “continue to use its position as an accreditor as a lever to make such improvements the norm.” That’s no assault on ed schools, to be sure--after all, they keep NCATE in business--but it does signal a kind of openness to change that NCATE has not traditionally displayed. Over at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), President Sharon Robinson quipped that her organization “enthusiastically embrace[d]” Duncan’s suggestions--though she also noted that she believed Duncan’s proposed sea-change was already underway, a doubtful assertion.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the ed schools’ near-hegemony over teacher preparation is weakening. Myriad alternative certification programs now compete for aspiring teacher candidates. Though many of them--too many--are more or less in the hands of the ed schools, these programs do signal that it can be cheaper, faster, and less arduous to enter the classroom. Many new teachers even learn on the job. Community colleges now offer teacher preparation programs (in Florida, for example) to people who already have bachelors’ degrees. A growing number of charter schools, as well as the overwhelming majority of private schools, don’t even require certification. A few districts, such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and some charter school operators, like High Tech High, simply train their own. It has also become accepted practice to hire non-educators for school and district leadership positions. Ron Huberman, Arne Duncan’s own successor as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, came from that city’s police department, while New York Chancellor Joel Klein is a lawyer and likes to hire McKinsey-trained subordinates.

Some districts now opt for alternatively-prepared individuals rather than ed school products. Baltimore and Boston recently chose to hire Teach For America corps members over traditionally-trained educators, notwithstanding their own budgetary travails. The New Teacher Project is the primary provider of urban residency programs, while such programs like New Leaders for New Schools and the Broad Residency in Urban Education are a favored way of preparing school leaders. New Orleans, for example, retained NLNS in 2007 to select and train 40 new principals for post-Katrina schools.

Further weakening the ed-school strangle-hold is a growing body of research that shows “certified” teachers and ex-teacher school leaders are no more effective than anybody else. In some cases, they’re less effective. Harvard Business School Professor Stig Leschly found that New Leaders turns out exemplary school leaders, while the Louisiana Board of Regents discovered that New Teacher Project-trained teachers were more effective than those from other preparation paths, particularly in math.

What might a major change in the way ed schools operate look like? For starters, it would link teacher evaluations back to the institutions that prepared them. The Higher Education Act actually tried to do this by requiring states to report pass rates on state tests of graduates of teacher preparation programs, to rank (in quartiles) the institutions of higher education at which those teachers were prepared, and to name the criteria for identifying low-performing schools of education. This didn’t work out very well, as states figured out how to flummox the reporting system (such as redefining as “graduates” only those who had already passed the state text). HEA was replaced in July 2008 with the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which sadly did not fix most of its predecessor's problems, in particular the evaluation of teacher prep programs by largely meaningless certification test pass rates.

Meanwhile, a few states have begun to tie student achievement back to programs that prepared those students’ instructors. Besides Louisiana’s better-known foray into value-added teacher preparation program assessment, Texas and New York are considering or have dabbled in value-added assessment of teacher preparation programs. All of these schemes properly look both at ed schools and alternative certification programs.

An ed-school overhaul would also involve more hands-on training. Though there are a number of stand-alone alternative residency programs (typically TNTP-spawned), most education schools require only 10 weeks of student teaching with minimal observation by their professors (and wide variation in the quality of mentor teachers in the classroom itself). Duncan and Susan Engel recommend that ed schools look to multi-yeared and expert-mentored physician residency programs for guidance. In particular, these schools should make classroom performance during said residency experience a significant part of graduation requirements. Or, if following the medical model, a condition of certification and/or job placement. Just because a student passes all their education school classes doesn’t mean they’ll excel in the classroom.

Teacher training would move outside the ed-school ghetto and become the job of entire colleges. Ed school professors might concentrate on pedagogy while content courses would be taught by discipline-based faculty. Teacher prep programs should strive to attract the top college students--and raise admissions standards accordingly. For undergraduate education degrees, this may simply mean restricting the provision of teacher training to the top 200 tertiary schools in the country. For graduate programs, stronger ties between ed schools and the universities with which they are affiliated would help. Graduate admissions are often department-based, but since ed schools and programs are typically on the lower end of that quality spectrum, a stronger relationship could confer higher standards for admission on the education programs (and make the marrying of content courses in other departments and pedagogical courses in ed schools easier).

No, none of this is guaranteed. Education schools and the universities for which the old model is usually quite lucrative are powerful, hidebound, and practiced at fending off “reform.” But their walls are a bit weaker today than they were yesterday and the attack is stronger this time. Possibly we’re at the beginning of a new era in teacher preparation.

Note: This piece reflects a correction regarding the Higher Education Act, which was reauthorized as the Higher Education Opportunity Act in July 2008.

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