WOODROW WILSON once complained, apropos of an earlier wave of education reform, that getting a faculty to revamp its curriculum is "like moving a graveyard." That, nevertheless, is what a task force at the venerable City University of New York is trying to get its teacher education faculty to do. In a recent report, the CUNY group proposes a bold step which, though generally in tune with experiments at various state universities, would go beyond what any of them so far have actually accomplished. It wants to eliminate entirely the education major for undergraduates, and require instead that prospective teachers, like prospective doctors, take some "pre-education" courses but major in the liberal arts.
The consensus the CUNY report takes off from -- that teacher education desperately needs reforming -- has lately become all but overwhelming. Polemics about the Mickey Mouse nature of many education curricula -- both graduate and undergraduate -- are longstanding parts of the education reform landscape. The more recent emphasis on deemphasizing education courses by requiring knowledge of other kinds to bolster them -- easier than reforming them directly -- shares in a number of different themes recently heard. A National Endowment for the Humanities report called for "content" over "process" in education generally; several states, New Jersey foremost, are pushing "alternative certification" of teachers without education degrees; a group of 37 college presidents is traveling the country talking up the need to bring more honor to teaching as a profession. If CUNY gets into this game, it will greatly benefit all these initiatives, not because it's the first -- colleges from California to Virginia are experimenting with such schemes -- but because of the unparalleled visibility and sheer size of CUNY, which is the third biggest university system in America and trains most of the teachers for New York's public and parochial schools.
The CUNY plan, which is expected to pass, sets a maximum of 30 credits in education courses an undergraduate could take. To be certified as a teacher in New York State requires only 24 credits. Currently, though, most education majors at CUNY take as many as 50 or 60 credits, leaving little time for courses in the subjects they will actually teach. The proposed plan would replace these with a requirement for a substantive major. Just as important, prospective teachers would be required to have some college-level training in every subject in the state curriculum for the level of school they wanted to teach. (For instance, prospective high school history teachers majoring in American history would also be required to study world history, and vice versa.) Most theory courses would be put off till a fifth-year master's degree.
Other parts of the plan call for supervised practice teaching in "professional development schools" analogous to teaching hospitals and for selective admission to the pre-education program, perhaps in the junior year. It all adds up to the kind of rigorous, prestigious course of study that would challenge and attract bright students to a profession that needs them badly.