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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

The vast majority of classroom teachers are trained in traditional colleges of education. Lately that training has come under intense scrutiny. Critics say too many of these graduates are poorly prepared for the enormous changes taking place in the real world of American public schools.

As part of our new, yearlong series on making teachers better, NPR's Claudio Sanchez tells us how colleges of education are responding to the criticism.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: At Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Professor Leila Christenbury's methods class is immersed in a discussion about intrinsic motivation.

Professor LEILA CHRISTENBURY (Virginia Commonwealth University): The question that we have is if your students do not manifest intrinsic motivation, do not want to be there, when does the bell ring, no, I didn't bring my pencil, no, I didn't do my homework, no, I'm not going to open the book.

SANCHEZ: So, what do you do, Christenbury asked? Well, offering pizza points would be a big mistake.

Prof. CHRISTENBURY: And I think it's going to hit you again as you sit in your practicum school, just how many things can you do to entice your students? There was a hand up. Yes, Danny.

SANCHEZ: The options for motivating students these days, Christenbury tells her class, are really limited. She covers a lot of ground in this two-hour class. There's a group presentation covering eighth grade history standards and how to teach them, followed by teaching high school literature, what works, what doesn't. In classes like this, students also hear a lot about what VCU professors call the hidden curriculum, showing children love, respect and compassion. Shea Robinson(ph), a first year grad student, says it came in handy when she was student teaching and was assigned to a troubled little boy.

Ms. SHEA ROBINSON: He was kicking and throwing and beating up his backpack. And the teacher asked him why was he doing that? And he said, I can't beat you up, so I'm going to beat up this backpack. And then they said, oh, Shea, you're going to be working one-on-one with him in the hallway. And I thought, really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SANCHEZ: Robinson says those lessons, combined with her special education training, helped her deal with this child. She traced his anger to a situation at home and by the end of the year, he was doing just fine academically. Real life classroom experiences, says Professor Christenbury, that's what the curriculum at VCU is based on.

Prof. CHRISTENBURY: 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. We're not out of touch. Every person is a veteran elementary, middle or high school teacher.

SANCHEZ: But 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.

Prof. CHRISTENBURY: And they came to my class and they said, Dr. Christenbury, what do you think about that? And I said: It's criminal. It's criminal.

SANCHEZ: It's that disconnect that makes Arthur Levine want to blow up some colleges of education and start over.

Professor ARTHUR LEVINE (Former President, Columbia Teachers College): Education schools have, in many cases, become irrelevant and often of very low quality.

SANCHEZ: Levine is a former president of Columbia Teachers College. He spent the last five years studying what he calls the crisis in the preparation of classroom teachers.

Prof. LEVINE: The curriculum at schools of education has little to do with practice, what goes on in schools. 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.

SANCHEZ: And there's more. Levine says there are too many schools of education - about 1,300, and no more than half are accredited. Only a few produce quality research. Their admission 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 they're much better at producing effective teachers.

Prof. LEVINE: Teach for America makes teaching sexy. It gets very bright people who never would've considered teaching to become teachers.

SANCHEZ: But, says Levineā€¦

Prof. LEVINE: There's no evidence or very little evidence indicates any of the alternatives are any better than the university-based programs.

SANCHEZ: The bottom line, says Levine, is that if schools of education don't improve teacher training, they should shut down. Bad idea, says Ric Hovda, dean of the College of Education at San Diego State University.

Professor RIC HOVDA (Dean, College of Education, 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 a solution is a better way to think about it.

SANCHEZ: The solution, says Hovda, will come from programs like his, which is work(ph) to 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 embark on a one-year teacher preparation program.

Prof. HOVDA: Now, think about that. We're working with people, preparing them to be a professional teacher in 12 to 15 months. That's not a very long period of time. However, most of that time is spent in a school, in a classroom, working alongside a mentor or teacher and a faculty member from the university.

Prof. HOVDA: 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. In San Diego, Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union, says she has surveyed teachers and found that it doesn't matter how good their college training was, many are still unprepared and overwhelmed.

Ms. CAMILLE ZOMBRO (President, Teachers Union, San Diego): I was stunned by the amount of paper-pushing, mind-numbing, meeting someone else's requirements. That's what's pushing people out the door. It's not the kids, you know, it's the frustration. Fifty percent of teachers are turning over within the first five years. I mean, yikes.

SANCHEZ: And yet, you don't get the sense that students at San Diego State or Virginia Commonwealth University have serious doubts about becoming teachers.

Ms. MEGHAN WILLIAMS: I always cry when I talk about why I want to be a teacher. My name is Meghan Williams. I'm 22.

SANCHEZ: Williams says for her teaching is a calling, not just a job. And what she hasn't learned in class at VCU, she's learned firsthand from working with real schoolchildren.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I've been in the classroom since I was a freshman. So when I graduate, I'll have 5 1/2 years of teachers in the schools that I've been to critiquing me, my professors critiquing things. And I think teachers, you know, maybe 10 years ago that are still teaching, they might not have been as prepared, and they don't really know that.

SANCHEZ: This kind of self examination, says Arthur Levine, is what schools of education should be doing a lot of. After all, he says, they're preparing 90 percent of the nation's classroom teachers.

Prof. LEVINE: Before abandoning them, I would make a serious effort to invest in them and produce the kinds of changes that are necessary to improve teacher education.

SANCHEZ: 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.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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