Addressing Ed Schools' Bottom Dwellers
by NCTQ President, Kate Walsh

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At a recent conference of teacher educators I mentioned that roughly one out of every four institutions currently housing ed schools routinely accepts students who would have a tough time meeting NCAA's eligibility requirements needed to play college ball. The football team aside, these same students, I pointed out, are eligible for a career in teaching. As one might expect, there was a little pushback from the audience.

One objection to my observation was on the face quite reasonable--that just because host institutions lack standards does not mean that the schools of education don't have any. In practice though it's hard to imagine that those schools aren't the rare exception. There's little evidence that these bottom quartile institutions are "creaming" the stronger talent. Some of these schools might require an aspiring teacher to earn a 2.5 GPA in the freshmen year of studies but just as often they only need a 2.5 GPA in their pre-professional ed school classes, where A's are handed out with notorious generosity. None of these schools impose a higher objective measure of academic ability than what it had taken to get admitted as a college freshman.

The most troubling objection was, "Why can't you focus on those schools that have standards? Why do you have to dwell on schools at the bottom?"

This view is indicative of a common mindset in the field of teacher education, a frequent unwillingness by the profession to police itself under the same criterion that other academic fields use as a measure of high standards: the academic quality of its students. The profession has proved itself more than capable of policing itself on the basis of unproven, ambiguous standards, but resists sufficient consideration of students' academic caliber--both when they come in as college sophomores and when they come out as teachers ready for hire. Most telling, the accrediting body for schools of education, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Educators (NCATE) is as likely to confer accreditation on a school with low academic standards as they are a high one.

Enter Professor Arthur "Take No Prisoners" Levine, outspoken president of Teachers College, what many consider to be the top teacher training institution in the nation. Five years ago he boldly wrote in a New York Times opinion piece that "The nation has too many weak education schools, with teachers, students, and curriculums that are not up to the task at hand?. It's time for government to strengthen or close these schools." While neither the profession itself nor any government entity has elected to follow up on Dr. Levine's advice, last week he unleashed his fury at the job schools of ed are doing training our nation's principals and other school leaders.

Levine paints a picture where states, local school districts, and universities are in cahoots, creating a "race to the bottom." All 50 states and 96 percent of local districts award raises to teachers who earn advanced degrees and credits beyond the master's. As a result, teachers are looking for a quick way to earn credits and degrees in order to make more money--enter, at stage left, the universities. The universities now must compete for students who are mainly interested in a piece of paper and credits, rather than true intellectual pursuit. The results are lower admission standards, a retreat on rigor, and "quickie degrees."

Levine's solution still lies with higher ed, just a different department. He'd leave it to business schools to educate future leaders. He also holds up a non-degree-producing British model, the National College for School Leadership (NCSL), located in Nottingham, England.

The ever-prolific Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute suggests a more open approach. Like Levine, Hess concludes that no ed school provides a truly innovative program or is likely to produce administrators capable of doing anything more than maintaining the status quo. Hess looks to the KIPP Schools and New Leaders for New Schools (NLNS) as models, in that "they are highly selective, seek out ways to combine educational preparation with broader training in management practice, and actively recruit promising leaders who might not otherwise pursue positions in education administration."

One conclusion can be made--States ought to stop requiring master's and doctoral degrees for leadership positions. These degrees aren't worth the paper they are written on. Let responsible experimentation through such vehicles as NLNS, KIPP, and the British model, take hold--and see who comes out ahead.