Duncan calls for overhaul of education schools

Teacher preparation programs must be held to a higher standard.
Teacher preparation programs must be held to a higher standard.

The Obama administration is calling for an overhaul of college programs that prepare new teachers, saying they are cash cows that do a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the classroom. Among the changes proposed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan: overhauling education schools’ curricula to ensure that future teachers learn how to use data to improve their instruction, and linking the performance of teachers with the schools where they received their training, so policy makers can see which schools are most effective.

In a speech delivered to Columbia University’s Teachers College on Oct. 22, Duncan called for “revolutionary change” in schools of education, which prepare at least 80 percent of the nation’s teachers.

Duncan said he has talked to hundreds of great young teachers while serving as Chicago schools chief and later as President Barack Obama’s schools chief. The teachers have two complaints about education schools, he said.

“First, most of them say they did not get the hands-on teacher training about managing the classroom that they needed, especially for high-needs students,” he said in his speech.

“And second, they say there were not taught how to use data to improve instruction and boost student learning,” Duncan said.

A 2006 report found that three out of five education school alumni said their training failed to prepare them to teach, he noted. The report was by Arthur Levine, a former Teachers College president.

Their large enrollment and low overhead makes education schools cash cows for their universities, Duncan said. But their profits have been diverted to smaller, more prestigious graduate departments such as physics and have not been spent on research and training for would-be teachers, he said.

Duncan tempered his criticism by noting that states, districts, and the federal government also are to blame for the problems.

“Most states routinely approve teacher education programs, and licensing exams typically measure basic skills and subject matter knowledge with paper-and-pencil tests without any real-world assessment of classroom readiness,” he said. “Local mentoring programs for new teachers are poorly funded and often poorly organized at the district level.”

And the federal government has been slow to provide guidance on the key ideas and concepts to be mastered at each grade level.

What’s more, most states and school districts don’t link the performance of teachers to their education schools to identify which programs prepare their teachers and which don’t, Duncan said.

“We should be studying and copying the practices of effective teacher preparation programs, and encouraging the lowest-performers to shape up or shut down,” he said.

Duncan also acknowledged some of the reforms that are under way in education schools, such as teacher residency programs modeled after the medical profession. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) recently announced $43 million in grants for 28 Teacher Quality Partnership programs that went to colleges of education and high-need school districts, with more than half of the five-year grants supporting residency programs, he said. An additional $100 million in grants included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will be awarded early next year.

He also noted the administration is using stimulus dollars to reward states that tie student achievement data to the education schools where their teachers had credentials.

The timing of these efforts is crucial, Duncan said. A third of veteran teachers and principals are Baby Boomers who are poised to retire, which could create a million new teaching positions in the next four years, according to ED.

He noted that Obama’s goal is for America to have more college graduates than any other country by 2020. It’s a tall order–only three-quarters of kids graduate from high school, and of those who do, about half go to college.

“But to reach that goal, both our K-12 system and our teacher preparation programs have to get dramatically better,” Duncan said.

Sharon P. Robinson, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, responded in a statement: “We enthusiastically embrace the challenge of change and consider ourselves a partner with the Education Department and all others forging ahead on this path.”

Robinson also noted the role of ED’s Teacher Quality Partnership grants in helping to usher in these changes, and she urged the department to continue expanding the program.

“AACTE will continue to advocate for such partnerships, including promising teacher residencies, to ensure that funding is available and reliable over time. And we will monitor the resulting pace of change and report on it to Congress and the community,” she said.


Columbia University Teachers College

Education Department

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