The vast majority of classroom teachers are trained in traditional colleges of education. That training, however, has come under intense scrutiny. Critics say too many teachers leave poorly prepared for the enormous changes taking place in the real world of teaching.
At Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., like most traditional, university-based teaching degree programs, students enroll in a five-year program and receive both classroom instruction as well as student-teaching experience. It's those "real life" classroom experiences that VCU bases its curriculum on, professor Leila Christenbury says.
"I went back to teach high school English because I was concerned about being out of touch. And when you go up and down this hall in this school of education, you're going to find people who are in the schools every single week," she says. "We're not out of touch. Every person is a veteran elementary, middle or high school teacher."
'A Gap A Mile Wide'
Christenbury knows all too well that some education professors are clueless about kids and just about everything else that happens in classrooms these days. She once taught at a university in another state where students were baffled that some of their professors had never set foot in a school.
It's that disconnect that makes Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, want to blow up some colleges of education and start over.
"Education schools have, in many cases, become irrelevant and often of very low quality," Levine says.
Levine has spent the past five years studying what he calls the "crisis" in the preparation of classroom teachers.
"The curriculum at schools of education has little to do with practice, what goes on in schools," says Levine. "There's a gap that's a mile wide. Senior professors don't participate in schools. There are universities around this country that place their students for student-teaching in failing schools with failing teachers. That's a major problem."
And there's more. There are 1,300 schools of education and no more than half are accredited. Only a few produce quality research. Their admissions standards are too low. Levine says schools of education have looked so bad that alternative teacher training programs like Teach for America have been able to claim that they're much better at producing effective teachers.
Teach for America — and alternative programs like it — recruit people with undergraduate or graduate degrees, and train them in what some consider summer-long "crash" courses.
"Teach for America makes teaching sexy. It gets very bright people who would've never considered teaching to become teachers," Levine says. But, he says, "there's no evidence or very little evidence indicating that any of the alternatives are any better than the university-based programs."
The bottom line, he says, is if schools of education don't improve teacher training, they should shut down.
That's a bad idea, says Ric Hovda, dean of the College of Education at San Diego State University.
"I don't believe that getting rid of colleges of education is the answer to how do we improve. I think figuring out how everybody becomes part of the solution is a better way to think about it," Hovda says.
The solution, Hovda says, will come from programs like his, which is reinventing itself. Unlike VCU's five-year degree program, San Diego State requires that students major in math, science, history or some other academic subject before they begin a one-year teacher preparation program.
"Now think about that: We're preparing people to become teachers in 12 to 15 months. That's not a long time. However, most of that time is spent in a school, in a classroom, working alongside a mentor/teacher and faculty member from the university," Hovda says.
What's unrealistic, says Hovda, is to expect new teachers right out of college to be flawless their first year, especially if they start in a financially strapped school system that can't afford to mentor or support them in years two, three, four and five.
Preparing For The Classroom
Camille Zombro, president of San Diego's teachers union, says she's surveyed teachers and found that it doesn't matter how good their training was. Many are still underprepared and overwhelmed.
"I was stunned by the amount of paper-pushing, mind-numbing, meeting someone else's requirements," Zombro says. "That's what's pushing people out the door. It's not the kids — it's the frustration. Fifty percent of teachers are turning over within the first five years. I mean, yikes!"
And yet, you don't get the sense that students at San Diego State or VCU have serious doubts about becoming teachers.
For VCU student Meghan Williams, teaching is not just a job, it's a calling.
"I always cry when I talk about why I want to be a teacher," Williams says.
What Williams hasn't learned in class at VCU, she's learned firsthand from real schoolchildren. Teaching in the classroom has been part of her curriculum since she started as a freshman at VCU.
"So when I graduate, I'll have 5 1/2 years of teachers critiquing me, my professors critiquing things," Williams says. "And I think teachers, maybe 10 years ago that are still teaching, they might not have been as prepared, and they don't really know that."
That kind of self-examination is what schools of education should be doing a lot of, says Levine. After all, he says, they're preparing 90 percent of the nation's classroom teachers.
"Before abandoning [education schools], I would make a serious effort to invest in them and produce the kinds of changes that are necessary to improve teacher education," he says.
For all the criticism that he's leveled against schools of education, Levine says he's committed to helping them, one program at a time.