In a speech delivered at Teachers College at Columbia University on Oct. 22, 2009, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called schools of education cash cows that do a mediocre job of preparing their graduates for the demands of the classroom. Although his indictment made headlines, it was not new.
For years, the nation's 1,206 university-based education schools have received low grades because of their lax admission and graduation standards. More than half accept virtually all applicants and require minimal evidence of competency for certification. There are notable exceptions, of course, in marquee names such as Harvard, Stanford and UCLA, as well as in lesser known brands such as Emporia State University in Kansas and Peabody College in Tennessee.
Nevertheless, the charge is valid overall. The real question, therefore, is why the situation exists in the first place and what, if anything, can be done about it.
Reformers like to point to Finland as a model. Not only do its students score at the top on tests of international competition, which are closely watched as putative evidence of educational quality, but teachers are highly respected. Why can't the U.S. overhaul its system of teacher preparation to mimic Finland's?
The answer is more complex than it initially appears. For starters, Finland is a small, relatively homogeneous country. What works there is highly unlikely to find traction here. But beyond those obvious differences is the way that Finland approaches the development of teachers and then supports their efforts. This was the subject of an excellent essay by W. Norton Grubb titled "Dynamic Inequality and Intervention: Lessons from a Small Country" that was published in the Phi Delta Kappan journal in Oct. 2007.
What Grubb emphasizes is that the high status of teaching and good working conditions (a "virtuous circle" in his words) create large pools of the best and the brightest who apply to teacher preparation programs. The acceptance rate is only 10 percent. Then candidates take four to five years to earn the equivalent of a master's degree, studying both their subject field and pedagogy.
But that's only one explanation of why Finns finish first. There is a commitment to education as a top priority of national policy that until now has been totally alien to our way of thinking. It is reflected in the National Board of Education's statement that the mission of basic education is to give everybody a good start in life. Because Finland doesn't have the huge differences in socioeconomic conditions that characterize the U.S., it is able to do so.