Not long ago education schools had a virtual monopoly on the teaching profession. They dictated how and when people became teachers by offering coursework, arranging apprenticeships and granting master’s degrees.
But now those schools are feeling under siege. Officials in Washington, D.C., and New York State, where some of the best-known education schools are located, have stepped up criticisms that the schools are still too focused on theory and not enough on the craft of effective teaching.
In an ever-tightening job market, their graduates are competing with the products of alternative programs like Teach for America, which puts recent college graduates into teaching jobs without previous teaching experience or education coursework.
And this week, the New York State Board of Regents could deliver the biggest blow. It will vote on whether to greatly expand the role of the alternative organizations by allowing them to create their own master’s degree programs. At the extreme, the proposal could make education schools extraneous.
“In a lot of respects, what the Regents have done is the ghost of Christmas future,” said Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College at Columbia University and now president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. “Education schools are on the verge of losing their franchise.”
While alternative programs now operate in most states, only a few, including Rhode Island and Louisiana, allow these programs to effectively certify their own teachers.
Arne Duncan, the United States secretary of education, is also trying to expand these programs. The 2011 federal education budget doubles the financing for teacher training through a $235 million fund that will go to both alternative and traditional preparation programs focused on high-needs schools and subjects. And in the Race to the Top competition, points are given to states that provide “high-quality pathways for aspiring teachers and principals” including “allowing alternative routes to certification.”
At an appearance at Teachers College last fall, Mr. Duncan highlighted some “shining examples” of education schools, including Teachers College. But he also fired a shot across the bow: “Many, if not most, of the nation’s 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st-century classroom.”
David M. Steiner, who became commissioner of the New York State Department of Education last year, insists that as much as he wants to introduce “new actors” into the realm of teacher preparation, he also wants to encourage education schools to reform themselves. Dr. Steiner, who in 2003 published a paper critical of the required reading at 16 elite education schools, says that colleges still devote too much class time to abstract notions about “the role of school in democracy” and “the view by some that schools exist to perpetuate a social hierarchy.”
As dean of the Graduate School of Education at Hunter College, he sought to elevate the practical aspects of teaching: when to make eye contact, when to call on a student by name, when to wait for a fuller answer. He now urges the use of video, a tool he pioneered at Hunter, to help student teachers see what works and what doesn’t in the classroom (“Like taking apart a serve in tennis,” he says).
In New York, teachers can begin working without a master’s degree as long as they have had some education courses as undergraduates, but they must earn a professional certification within five years by receiving a master’s degree from a teaching school. New York is one of a dozen states that requires teachers to get a master’s degree. Alternative certification programs like Teach for America offer a quicker path for graduates who did not study education in college, allowing them to begin teaching from the outset while pursuing a master’s degree after hours.
Under the Regents’ proposal, which the board is expected to approve on Tuesday and does not need the approval of the State Legislature, Teach for America and similar groups could create their own master’s programs, and the Regents would award the master’s degree, two powers that are now the sole domain of academia.
The Regents are looking for academic programs that would be grounded in practical teaching skills and would require teachers to commit to working in a high-needs school for four years.
“Ten years ago, this would have been an incredibly tough sell,” Dr. Steiner said.