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Teachers Colleges as the Weakest Link: Part 2

In my last blog post, I described our teachers colleges as the weakest link in our education system, explained why and said that nothing would change unless the states take a very strong role in strengthening them.  In this post, I'll have a little more to say about that last part.

One could argue that our schools of education are as weak as they are because, rather than exercising the kind of leadership they should have exercised, they have chosen instead to retreat within their shell.   Or one could argue that they are the prisoners of the environment they find themselves in and cannot change that without help from the state.  I am in the latter camp.

Let me count the ways.

Years ago, when I was the staff director for the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession, it was obvious to me that the schools of education could and should be raising their standards for admission to get better teachers for our schools.  I set up a series of appointments with the deans of some of the most highly regarded schools of education that prepare teachers in the country.  One by one, they told me that they had tried to raise their standards of admission.  The problem, it turned out, was not their own faculty.  Their faculties had agreed to raise their admissions standards, even though they knew that might lead to lower enrollments.  Their faculties knew that they were at the bottom of the university's status hierarchy, and they knew the only way to gain status was for their school to gain a reputation as hard to get into.  But, in every case, they were foiled by the arts and sciences faculties who were afraid that, if the education school raised its standards, many of the arts and sciences departments would have fewer students, because many of their students were enrolled in the education school.

Just as the school of education has a low status within the university, universities that have schools of education, especially those that train teachers, often come to feel that they would be regarded as more prestigious institutions if they got rid of their school of education. Over my professional lifetime, I have known several universities that have done just that and none that have added a school of education.  So it turns out that schools of education are often not allowed to do what is necessary to raise their status within the university by raising their standards but can be jettisoned for having low standards.   Talk about you can't win for losing!

Of course, raising the standards for our teachers colleges would require better faculty and more time in the same sort of heavily supported practicum experience for aspiring teachers that the doctors have during their medical education.  Both of these things are very expensive.  But teachers are the largest single profession in the United States. The education and training of teachers is a big business in the United States.  Most of it takes place in state universities (many of them former normal schools) and in small private institutions.  Many of these universities not only count on the revenue from teacher training to support a large proportion of their faculty, physical plant and overhead staff, but they actually expect the teacher education program to generate a surplus that the university can use to support other operations.  Hence, the use of the phrase "cash cow" to describe their financial function in the university.  This of course, means that the dean is expected to run the school of education on a bare bones budget.  So, once again, even if the faculty of the school of education is willing to raise standards at the risk of reduced enrollments, the university is not willing to give them that option if it will cost more money and evaporate the current surplus, which of course it will.

If the school of education has a customer, it is probably the superintendents of schools of the districts who employ its graduates.  One often hears complaints about those graduates from those superintendents, but my observation is that those superintendents go back to the same sources of new teachers year after year after year and they seem to be quite comfortable hiring those graduates.  The big districts long ago learned what to expect from the schools of education from whom they hire most of their new teachers and have adjusted their expectations and operations accordingly.  If I were the dean and faculty of the school of education, I would conclude that there would be substantial risk in changing my formula very much.  This should not surprise us.  Once again, if the schools of education were to do what needs to be done to raise the quality of their graduates, their enrollments might well decline unless they could point to districts willing to pay substantially more to more highly qualified graduates.  My guess is that there are few if any such districts.  So, if I were the dean of an education school, I could be forgiven for thinking that, were I to raise admission standards, improve the experience, hire a more qualified professoriate and extend the time required to complete the program, I would be committing institutional suicide.

And now we get to the accreditation process.  Most states generally grant to schools of education the right to award to their graduates what amounts to a provisional license to teach, so long as they have completed a program of education approved by the state.  Programs are generally approved if they have been accredited by an association of schools of education approved for that purpose by the U.S. Department of Education.  Thus, the keyhole through which a person must pass to become a teacher is a process controlled by the schools of education themselves.  Thus, the standards used to determine virtually all the important characteristics of teacher education are the characteristics already possessed by the majority of institutions offering teacher education.  When courageous accreditation heads have tried to use their position to raise standards substantially, they have typically had their heads handed to them by those of their members who know they could not meet higher standards.

In many such industries, the institutions see it as in their interest to limit the number of institutions offering an approved program because limiting the supply allows them to drive up the price of both attending the institution and of the labor of the graduates.  If you are interested in driving up quality, this is a virtuous circle.  If the number of highly trained professionals is limited in relation to demand, the price of their labor goes up.  If the price of their labor is high, many top high school graduates will apply.  If the number of schools offering a program of preparation for that profession is kept small by stiff accreditation requirements, then they will be able to charge high tuition rates. The additional resources will enable them to hire a first-rate faculty, build very attractive physical facilities and turn out highly qualified professionals who go on to make a lot of money and endow their alma maters with generous gifts. 

None of this—not one whit of it—describes the modern teachers college.  While accreditation in the virtuous circle I just described serves to keep standards high, accreditation in the education arena does just the opposite.  Instead, it serves to keep standards down.  The institutions currently offering teacher education can hardly be expected to embrace, never mind develop, standards for accreditation that would put many of them out of business.

In many other countries, the content of teacher education is heavily and directly regulated by the state to align policy on teacher education with policy on elementary and secondary education.  But there is very strong tradition of academic freedom in the United States that flows from a desire to let the professoriate, not the state, determine what is taught and how it is taught.  The state interest in the quality and content of instruction is dealt with by requiring that the universities organize associations for the purpose of accrediting programs and institutions that meet industry standards.  This works very well for professions that have a strong economic interest in using high standards to limit supply, but, as just explained, far less well for professions that are not able to limit supply.

In most states, the government has the power to approve or disapprove the programs of the schools of education, but, in practice, the state simply approves all programs that have been accredited by an approved accrediting association.

There is one big problem left that is so far undiscussed: the way the whole system of teacher preparation is governed.  The problem is the separation almost everywhere in this country between the governance of the schools and the governance of higher education.  In countries with very strong education systems, for example, teachers colleges are expected to teach prospective teachers how to teach the state-required curriculum in the schools.  But there is no such requirement in most or perhaps all of our states.   There is very weak regulation of teacher college programs overall and hardly any links between state policy on elementary and secondary education and policy that would affect the quality of preparation or the people who will teach in the state's schools.  Neither can change the quality of teachers without the other, but there is no mechanism for concerted joint action.

One might have supposed that, although the forces acting on the deans and faculties of our schools of education operate to keep standards low and deprive the schools of education of the incentives and resources needed to up their game, that the state, having a strong interest in raising the quality of its teachers, would offset the forces keeping the schools of education on their time-honored course.  But that is not true.  It turns out that the state is mainly sitting on the sidelines, watching the show.

So what, you ask, could the state do?  Recall that the state—most states, anyway—have the legal authority to approve or disapprove the programs of their teacher education programs. Well, let me give you an example of what one country with comparable authority did with it.

In the 1970s, Finland, with a population about the size of that of North Carolina, had close to 40 teacher education institutions.  It shut them all down and opened eight new ones in its research universities.  The Ministry of Education told the research universities what characteristics these new programs needed to have.  Like many European universities, the basic degree in Finland, comparable to our bachelors degree program, was a three-year program.  The Ministry required the new teacher preparation programs to combine a three-program with a two-year masters degree program.  The new programs would have to be research-based and would have to give Finnish teachers the skills they would need to do their own research.  The programs in these schools of education would have to be structured to give the teachers a deep background in the subjects they would teach and the curriculum described in the Finnish curriculum frameworks.  Many Finnish school teachers now have doctorates.  They are superbly educated.  Teachers top the list of professionals young Finns would like to marry.   

The key to this story is simple.  When the Finns decided to restrict the right to offer teacher preparation to their research universities, they instituted a very high threshold in their teacher quality system.  Only those students who had the high school academic standing to get into their research universities could get into teaching. What is surprising about this is that not only did the applications from poorly prepared students plummet, which was to be expected, but the applications from very well-prepared students soared.  Raising the admission standards made teaching much more attractive to highly qualified high school graduates.  

The Finnish story is not unique.  A growing number of other countries have raised their standards for getting into teacher preparation programs by limiting the right to offer such programs to highly selective institutions.  In most of these countries, teacher education is controlled by the ministry of education, which ensures close alignment between the policies and practices affecting teacher education and those affecting the schools.

In Singapore, with a population about the size of the typical American state, there is just one teacher education institution, located in one of Singapore's premier research institutions.  It prepares all of Singapore's teachers and school administrators in a program that is informed by and synchronized with that country's policies for primary and secondary education.

I have good friends among the deans of schools of education in universities well known in their state—but not so much outside it—who have spent much of their lives trying to greatly raise the quality of their graduates.  They are typically very lonely people.  The weak link in our country's education system does not have to be weak.  But the system cannot and will not fix itself.  All the forces now at work will keep it from doing that.  Only an outside intervention, in the form of deliberate, far-sighted and comprehensive policies promulgated by governors, the heads of  state higher education commissions and chief state school officers working together can do what needs to be done. 

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