Karen Hitchcock: Is Teacher Education An “Industry Of Mediocrity?”

Nov 21, 2013

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Bill Keller began with what the author called a “caustic aphorism:”  “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t  teach, teach teaching.” He went on to give an inspirational exception to that rule in the work of one Bill Jackson, a teacher doing exceptional things in a Harlem classroom. And, I know each of us could give many examples of truly inspiring teachers who have made a difference in our lives. However, Mr. Keller’s bottom line is that, notwithstanding these many exceptional teachers, overall, the quality of teacher preparation in this country has been, at best mediocre, with obvious deleterious effects on the quality of learning in our nation’s schools.  As recently as this past summer, Mr. Keller points out, the National Council on Teacher Quality labeled teacher education in this country  “an industry of mediocrity” … the title of his opinion piece.

In a recent article co-authored by one of this nation’s most respected leaders in teacher education, Arthur Levine, president emeritus of Teachers College of Columbia University,  a new national accrediting body is described which could well revolutionize the way teachers are taught and evaluated in this country. As Mr. Levine and his co-author, Rick Ginsberg, Dean of Education at the University of Kansas, put it: “If the standards - approved in August by [the] new national accrediting body – are enforced properly, institutions that have used teacher education as a cash cow to pay for other priorities will no longer be able to do so. Instead, their programs will be judged by the real-world impact of their graduates in the classroom.”  

While, clearly, there are many exceptions to this sweeping castigation of the field, many of them, like the University at Albany and The College of St. Rose, right in our own backyard, I don’t think anyone would debate the need for close examination and analysis of the ways our schools of education carry out their critical mission.  Research has shown wide variations in the standards these schools employ. Issues of selectivity head the list of challenges. As pointed out by Mr. Keller, studies have shown that only “… 23% of American teachers come from the top third of college graduates” as opposed to countries like Finland “where only top students [many from the top 10% of their graduating classes] get into teacher-training programs.”  Other professions in our country have routinely set much higher entry requirements and, increasingly, individuals outside the field are stepping up and demanding attention to these and other quality standards.  In New York, Governor Cuomo established the New NY Education Reform Commission in 2012 to examine ways to strengthen the State’s education system.  This past September, he announced that the Trustees of the State University of New York had adopted a recommendation of the SUNY Chancellor for increased admissions requirements for all SUNY teacher and principal preparation programs, a move designed to increase the selectivity of these programs and, hopefully, help attract more highly-qualified students to this profession.

While increasing admissions requirements to our schools of education is important, other issues also require study. For instance, how do we ensure that educators are skilled in the fields they teach? How is content specialization addressed in teacher preparation?   Some teacher preparation programs, like the University at Albany, have long insisted on in-depth preparation in the content areas to be taught. But that is not always the case.

Higher entry requirements and improved content specialization are necessary but not, in and of themselves, sufficient to address the complex issues facing our nation’s schools of education. How do we link student learning to teacher performance?  How do we educate our teachers to address an increasingly diverse student population?  How do we provide our student teachers with the experiences needed to create a learning environment where students who have only known poverty and a culture of low expectations can grow and learn?  All are critical questions worthy of our attention and best thinking. The discussion has started, and I am optimistic that more and more of our teacher education programs will soon reflect the best practices that are continuing to be developed around the country –  best  practices our nation’s K-12 students certainly deserve.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served  on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

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