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Revising Teacher Education: Meaningful Change or Window Dressing?

One of the scandals about American higher education is its complicity in creating the mediocrity in our K-12 schools. American primary and secondary education students do so-so at best in standardized international testings. They have a lot of self esteem but know relatively little. Large numbers are functionally illiterate or semi-literate after a dozen or more years in school.

There are two major factors in higher education’s role in this mediocrity. First, colleges train the teachers, and there is nearly universal feeling within many universities that the colleges of education are disasters—teaching mush, applying low standards, with research that is mostly embarrassingly bad in quality and sometimes in quantity. The great American universities (say the top 25 schools as measured by magazine rankings of US News & World Report or Forbes) generally do not even have an undergraduate school of education. Secondly, the relatively low admission standards of most American universities allow most students to take an undemanding high-school curriculum and still get admitted to college—the secondary schools feel no compulsion to be good (Jackson Toby made the point beautifully in the Lowering of Higher Education).

We learn that the accrediting agency for the education schools, the newly created Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), wants to do something about the first of these factors, radically reforming the criteria for accreditation of schools of education. News reports indicate that CAEP is going to have a commission that will recommend new standards. The commission will have 30 members, including deans and professors of education, school superintendents, union representatives, and a PTA leader.

The new commission allegedly will work closely with the public schools to tie the education-school programs to the needs of the schools themselves. The emphasis will be on improving teacher classroom effectiveness. Sounds good. But a review of Chronicle articles on teacher education accreditation “reform” over the past two decades suggest that previous efforts have had little or no positive impact. Therefore, I am skeptical of this new move.

The biggest problem is that the same old crowd is coming up with revisions, the same sorts of people who have unsuccessfully administered the oversight of schools of education in the past. Lots of school-of-education and public-school types. It is like putting Edward Smith (captain of the Titanic), Joseph Hazelwood (captain of the Exxon Valdez) and Francesco Schettino (captain of the Costa Concordia) on a commission on maritime safety. The system has failed, so why is the commission to deal with a big hunk of the problem dominated by the system’s establishment?

If I were appointing such a commission, it would be smaller (30 is clearly too large) and a majority would be outside the establishment of educrats. For example, a commission might contain a couple college of education dean types (including former Teachers College dean Arthur Levine, who is on the actual commission), one professor of education, two school superintendents, two public-school teachers (whether union members or not is irrelevant), one parent (whether associated with PTA or not is irrelevant), five education researchers mostly from non-education disciplines (scholars like Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Jay Greene), and four business leaders (who ultimately hire the graduates)—a total of 17.

What should the commission do? Impose standards that say that education schools that accept mediocre students and then give them all A’s (or nearly so) will go out of business. Colleges whose graduates show that their students are getting good “value-added” will be accredited, while those who do not will not. Schools who have students who master the subject matter of the area they are teaching in will be evaluated favorably relative to those that have students who do not.

Alas, I predict a report full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I hope I am proved wrong. If not, perhaps we should move to a policy of making it a felony for a school superintendent to knowingly hire a graduate of a college of education.

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