UDC Chief Wants to Cut Undergrad Major in Education
Low Graduation Rates Prompt Change as Sessoms Proceeds With an Institutional Overhaul

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.

His plans have touched off student protests and a vote of no confidence by the faculty association. D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) has said he will submit legislation to block the tuition increase and the imposition of admissions standards.

Sessoms took office at the beginning of this academic year. In the fall, as he began planning an overhaul of the long-troubled school, administrators reviewed all of the programs at UDC, revealing that some majors, such as French, have only a few students. French will be replaced by programs in more demand, such as Chinese or Arabic.

But education is the only program facing elimination that is in high demand from students and employers.

UDC's education department offers certification courses, a two-year associate's degree in early childhood development, undergraduate degrees in several areas and master's degrees in early childhood and special education. Sessoms said the associate's degree program, which has been relatively successful, will continue.

There are about 380 undergraduate education majors now, but enrollment has gradually declined for five years. During that time, the school has issued diplomas to just a handful of students a year from each of four specialty areas. In undergraduate special education, which has about 30 students a year, there are years when no one graduates.

Sessoms compared it with the nursing program, whose students also take a national exam. "In nursing, they pass. In education they don't," he said. "We need to fix, unsentimentally, what we do poorly."

Under Sessoms's plan, new students would major in subjects they hope to teach and then could seek master's degrees free at a proposed UDC graduate-level center for urban education.

Teacher training in the United States is evolving. In recent years, states have begun to favor teachers who receive undergraduate degrees in subjects they plan to teach, rather than spending that time primarily on teaching skills, said Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

Students enrolled in UDC's program will be allowed to continue, but applicants are being told that the program will probably be eliminated, and new students are not being admitted.

Many of the department's 17 faculty members expressed alarm about the plan. They said it is too drastic and would harm students throughout the District.

Education professor Doris Peters said that the math section of the Praxis I test, given after the equivalent of sophomore year, is a particular stumbling block for students. "We're not math educators," she said, "and they get caught in a rut."

Provost Grae Baxter said: "The Praxis is pretty elemental. . . . The natural question is, if we are teaching students how to be teachers, can't we teach them how to pass the Praxis?"

The company that does the testing does not correlate results with grade level, but several professors and deans said it tests academic skills students should have mastered in high school.

Some professors believe that the test is culturally biased toward white students, and according to the Educational Testing Service, which administers the test, more white students than blacks pass nationwide. But the company says that is because a higher percentage of whites received a good academic foundation in high school.

At Howard University's five-year education program, more than 90 percent of students typically pass the Praxis 1 test. Leslie Fenwick, the school's dean, said she is concerned that the basic skills test has prevented some quality minority students from becoming teachers, a particular concern because the teaching force nationally is much whiter than the student population.

"Certainly there's a disparate impact on African American students, because more of those students are coming in with weaker preparation," said Drew Gitomer, an ETS research scientist. "It's a large gap, and a long-standing gap. . . . The question is, is the test biased, or is our educational system unfair?"

Sessoms said the test is a low bar. When he was president of Delaware State University, a historically black school, he said, "if we got 75 or 80 percent [pass rates], we were worried."

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