University of the District of Columbia President Wants to Eliminate Its Undergraduate Education Major, Citing 'Extraordinarily Low' Graduation Rate

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2009

The University of the District of Columbia plans to shut down its struggling undergraduate education department, which, officials say, is out of touch with current thinking on how to train teachers and fails to graduate the vast majority of its students.

Usually, 7 or 8 percent of the students who enroll in the department have graduated from it within six years, according to UDC data. Professors said that is primarily because many cannot pass a national standardized test of basic high school-level reading, writing and math skills.

In the early childhood education major, typically four to six of the approximately 150 students graduate each year.

Although the statistics include students who transfer to other majors or schools, "that's an extraordinarily low number. . . . It's scary," said UDC President Allen L. Sessoms, who hopes to eliminate the program. "The students who do graduate are excellent. The trouble is, hardly anyone graduates."

Sessoms's proposal to replace the undergraduate program with a master's degree program focused on urban education has angered some professors and students. They defend the major, praise the long history of teacher education in the city and say the D.C. public schools need teachers who are trained here.

The debate is affected by issues of race, class and expectations in a city where public education has long fallen short.

"I've only cried twice in my life -- once when I was born, and once when my mother died -- but I'm about to cry for UDC," said education professor Elsie Williams. The program should be strengthened rather than torn down, she said, especially at a time when schools need good teachers. "Let's not drown the baby in the bath water."

Jose Lugo, a sophomore from Columbia Heights, said he hopes to teach in the D.C. schools and is dismayed by UDC's plans. Along the way, a few people made a real difference, he said. "It was teachers like that who inspired me and made me want to come back to the same schools I went to and actually care about students, help them."

Dale Lyons, 49, another UDC student who hopes to teach, said Sessoms's plan "disenfranchises a lot of nontraditional students." While working and raising families, he said, many older students do not have time to seek master's degrees. Lyons failed the standardized Praxis I test last year.

Administrators say they are trying to break the cycle of training teachers who lack basic skills because they are products of D.C.'s schools, then return to teach in those schools if they manage to graduate.

The recommendation is part of a package of sweeping changes proposed by Sessoms, who hopes to raise standards at the city's only public university. In January, the board endorsed his plan to split the school into a community college with open enrollment and a four-year university that would have admissions standards for the first time. The board has agreed to increase tuition dramatically for the four-year program.

Sessoms also wants to add doctoral programs, bring in new professors, require more rigorous evaluations of staff, seek autonomy from the city government, build dorms and create schools of public health and government.

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