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Do Schools of Education Have a Future?

The New York Times in a front-page story on Apr.18 reported that plans are underway in New York State and elsewhere to allow organizations other than schools of education to certify their own teachers because of dissatisfaction with the present system ("Alternate Path for Teachers Gains Ground").

If the plan becomes a reality, the question is whether traditional schools of education will become an anachronism. There are 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education in the U.S. There is no doubt that some are sub-par. But there are also some that are first-rate, such as Harvard, UCLA, Stanford and Columbia's Teachers College. But lesser known names, such as Emporia State University in Kansas and Vanderbilt's Peabody College in Tennessee, are not far behind.

It serves no constructive purpose, therefore, to tar all schools of education with a broad brush. And yet that's what seems to be going on. David F. Labaree, professor of education at Stanford, in The Trouble With Ed Schools (Yale University Press, 2004) reminds readers that schools of education proliferated in order to meet the needs of rapid school expansion in the U.S. Not surprisingly, quantity trumped quality in the process. But the recession has altered the picture. School districts across the country are warning that hundreds of thousands of teachers may lose their jobs in June. Twenty-two thousand teachers in California have been told that their jobs are in jeopardy, and 15,000 teachers in New York have been put on notice.

In spite of these numbers, reformers are pushing for alternative programs. Already about one-third of new teachers hired come through some 600 programs under the auspices of 125 alternative routes to certification. One innovation drawing increasing attention is the Boston Teacher Residency. But will any of these programs deliver better prepared and more effective teachers than traditional schools of education?

It's impossible to know for certain at this point. Empirical evidence is mixed. "Making a Difference?" by Zeyu Xu, Jane Hannaway and Colin Taylor in April 2007 found that Teach for America teachers in North Carolina were more effective than traditional teachers, as measured by student exam performance. But Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University and others in April 2005 concluded in their study of Houston student achievement that although TFA teachers performed as well as other uncertified teachers, their results did not match those of certified teachers.

This kind of dueling in educational research is not new. That's why with so much on the line, it's best not to jump to conclusions based on the limited evidence available. What I can say from personal experience, however, is that the UCLA Graduate School of Education where I earned my teaching credential and where I later taught as a lecturer was stellar. I hope that other teacher candidates will profit as much as I did.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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