And You Thought We Were Tough on Ed Schools. . .

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Editorial by Kate Walsh

Last spring I was on a panel with Arthur Levine, then-president of Teachers' College, to let education editors hear different perspectives on the teaching profession. In the course of my remarks, I turned to Dr. Levine and noted that we were both in agreement on a certain issue. Expecting a polite nod in return, I received a curt reply of, "I don't agree with you about anything."

As it turns out, Dr. Levine had it all wrong: he actually agrees with me quite a bit, and perhaps more so than with many of his one-time allies. The evidence for my assertion is a report released this week by Dr. Levine, Educating School Teachers, in which he offers a stark and honest appraisal of the sorry state of teacher education.

Levine has almost nothing positive to say about a vast majority of the nation's 1,200 ed schools--hardly typical of most education insider reports, whose refrains seldom stray from "Do Be A Do Bee, Don't Be a Don't Bee" to a full choral rendition of "Nobody knows the troubles I've seen." For months, Levine has made no secret of the bad news that was to come, but few were prepared for such a miser's munificence in handing out compliments.

What's got Washington insiders in a tizzy over this report is not, however, its unrelenting criticism of ed schools, but the fact that Levine portrays the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) as being more a part of the problem than the solution. In accrediting over half of the nation's ed schools (but too few of the top ones), he argues that NCATE has put quantity before quality.

While AACTE, the association that represents ed schools, didn't really try to defend itself against Levine's assertions, NCATE president Art Wise came out swinging. He charged Levine with "elitism" for recommending that more universities with doctoral programs get in the business of teacher preparation. Wise also noted that Levine failed to acknowledge that the four ed schools highlighted in the report for doing a good job are all accredited by NCATE. In Wise's shoes, I would have made the same point, but that response doesn't really address Levine's concern. Accreditation, Levine argues, has to stand for something, meaning that it's not enough that only some of the schools earning the NCATE seal of approval do a good job.

In truth, NCATE is in a tough spot, having had to make a difficult choice fifteen years ago when it began its campaign to use national accreditation as the lever for improving ed schools. The organization had a lot more luck persuading state school boards of its value than it did persuading education deans. A strategic decision, but at what ultimate cost? If NCATE is going to push for states to require national accreditation, it also has to keep its standards low enough that most schools in any given state can reasonably expect to earn accreditation.

At his press conference, Levine wryly observed that he has gone into the witness protection program with a new position at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. In any event, no matter how much you do or don't like what's in this report, Levine deserves respect for writing something that so clearly alienates him from his colleagues in his own field, and for doing so unprotected by organizational anonymity. Most of us would rather go down with the ship than face the prospect of our friends no longer liking us.