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Breaking Down The Ivory Tower

University of Virginia Assistant Professor Patrice Grimes, with students Sarah Morgan of Alexandria and Kristin Hartway of Stafford, teaches how to use technology when leading social studies courses.
University of Virginia Assistant Professor Patrice Grimes, with students Sarah Morgan of Alexandria and Kristin Hartway of Stafford, teaches how to use technology when leading social studies courses. (The Washington Post)

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

This should be a shining moment for education schools. Never has the nation paid so much attention to improving the quality of teaching. Yet the institutions that produce teachers have never faced so much criticism.

"Teacher education is the Dodge City of the education world," said Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia University's Teachers College. "Like the fabled Wild West town, it is unruly and chaotic."

Stanford University educational historian David F. Labaree wrote in a recent book: "Institutionally, the ed school is the Rodney Dangerfield of higher education; it don't get no respect. The ed school is the butt of jokes in the university, where professors portray it as an intellectual wasteland."

The attacks have become so frequent and intense that some educators say they have gone too far. But a growing number of educators say ed schools fail to give teachers enough background in their subject matter, fail to prepare them for the difficulties of urban schools and fail to recruit the best students.

For a study on ed schools released in September, Levine surveyed administrators with firsthand knowledge of these problems: principals. Only two of every five principals surveyed said ed schools were preparing teachers very well or moderately well to get new curriculum and performance standards into the classroom. Only one-third said their teachers were very or moderately well prepared for maintaining classroom order. Only one-fifth said their teachers were that well prepared to work with parents.

There is little agreement on what should be done to improve the ed schools. Levine suggested that the leading accreditation organization for ed schools should be replaced by one that pays closer attention to the performance of graduates. Many ed schools bristled at that idea.

Other critics have suggested replacing ed schools with training institutes in school districts. Some call for an expansion of Teach for America, which puts young college graduates into the classroom with minimal preparation and lets them learn on the job.

But rethinking teacher education does not appear to a high priority at many universities. Some experts wonder if ed schools will ever be more than hiring halls with a few textbooks.

"The good news about ed schools is that they are not powerful enough to do much harm to American education," Labaree wrote in his 2004 book "The Trouble With Ed Schools." He added: "The bad news is that they are also not powerful enough to do much good for a system of schooling that could really use their help."

There are slightly more than 1,200 education schools, colleges of education or departments of education. They award about one of every 12 bachelor's degrees in the United States, a quarter of all master's degrees and 15 percent of all doctorates. No other branch of academia is so large.

Ed schools typically give prospective teachers instruction in the theory and skills that will make them effective in the classroom. They also give teachers opportunities to practice for several weeks under the supervision of veteran teachers. At the end of the program, students receive certificates that allow them entry into public school systems.

The traditional ed school path is not the only route into the teaching profession. In 47 states and the District, prospective teachers, especially career-changers, can get credentials through alternative tracks that take less time. Still, most of those initiatives are associated with ed schools.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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