This was written by Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of Teachers College, Columbia University.

By Arthur Levine

A bill recently introduced in Congress, the GREAT Teachers and Principals Act, would designate programs based outside of universities as special academies for preparing teachers and principals. This misses the fundamental problem: a number of the nation’s teacher education programs are failing. It makes more sense to close the weak programs than to pay to create bandaids over them.

While excellent teacher preparation programs can be found at universities nationwide, too many programs have low admission and graduation standards, weak curricula, inadequate time in school classrooms, faculty who are out of touch with practice, and limited contact with schools. There has never been a better time than right now for states to dramatically improve university-based teacher education.

The simple fact is that for the past two decades, the nation has been dancing around this problem. States have created alternative routes into the teaching profession which minimize the amount of time future teachers must spend taking education courses. A variety of non-university teacher recruitment and preparation programs have been developed as substitutes for education schools. Most recently, New York State established a mechanism giving such organizations de facto degree granting authority.

Ideally, we should invest in the best teacher education programs, strengthen the good programs, and close the poor ones. The argument against doing this has been that, in spite of current layoffs, the United States needs two million new teachers over the next decade. Urban and rural schools cannot fill all their vacancies, particularly in math, science, special education, and English as a second language. They already must staff some classrooms with unqualified teachers and substitutes. We simply do not have the luxury—this argument goes—of closing the bottom third of teacher education programs.

While some alternative programs, such as Teach for America, bring high-achieving college graduates into teaching, investing in them rather than fixing university programs doesn’t deal with the real problem — that significant numbers of bad university programs keep churning out teachers.

It is wrong to lump all teacher education programs together, the excellent and the failing, establishing an elaborate patchwork of alternatives to both. It is also expensive to operate multiple systems for educating teachers, especially if the reason is that one system is not working well, but the remedy doesn’t distinguish between what works and what doesn’t.

If states seize this moment, they have an unprecedented opportunity to address the real problem. Owing to the economy, many districts are laying off teachers rather than hiring at previous levels. While the scale of the layoffs is unknown, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said it could be as many as 300,000 teachers.

So it is now possible for states to shut down the worst of their teacher education programs because they don’t need as many teachers. States have authority over the college and university academic programs that operate within their borders. According to a study by the Education Commission of the States, 45 states currently approve new programs and 41 engage in some form of program review.

States have a high degree of authority over teacher education programs in particular. In almost every state, they are more closely regulated by state departments of education than are other university programs. In setting program approval and review standards, state government — led by committed governors, chief state school officers and state higher education executives — is in an excellent position to close the weak, demand continuing improvement in the strong, and highlight the exceptional.

This is the moment for states to review all their teacher education programs — and, while they are at it, their programs for principals and superintendents, which are even weaker. These programs should be evaluated primarily on the basis of outcomes —student learning in a particular teacher’s class compared to the classes of that teacher’s peers. A generation ago, we simply did not have this sort of data. Now we do, and it is incumbent on us to use it.

Using this data, it is possible to assess teachers’ performance by the programs that prepared them. This could be augmented with data on individual programs, such as admission and graduation standards, curriculum design, length and quality of clinical experiences, relationships with schools and school districts, and mentoring experiences. Based upon this data, states can make decisions about which programs to maintain, support, and grow.

States that choose to do this can benefit from the experience of Louisiana, which has been engaged in such activities for over a decade and is widely heralded as a model worth emulating, not only with regard to what they are doing, but how they are doing it.

America’s university-based teacher education and school leadership programs now prepare more than 90 percent of the nation’s teachers and school administrators. The Willie Sutton principle says this is the wisest area for states to focus upon if they are serious about improving teacher education. When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Higher education is where the teachers are. All other remedies pale in comparison.


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Follow The Answer Sheet every day by bookmarking http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet. And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page. Bookmark it!