FOR NEARLY a quarter-century, America has made aggressive efforts to improve schools. There has been some progress: standards are higher, the curriculum richer, the evaluation of student performance more sophisticated. But if we are to see substantial performance improvements from all students, we need better performance from their teachers.
The programs that train the nation's teachers presently cannot meet this challenge.
According to a five-year teacher-education study I directed, as many as one-quarter to one-third of American teacher education programs do an excellent job. But most of our future teachers are being prepared in the remainder of these programs, which too often have inadequate curriculums, low standards, and faculty disconnected from the schools. More than three out of five alumni say teacher education programs do not prepare graduates for classroom realities.
Teacher education, like the Wild West's Dodge City, is unruly and chaotic.
At one state university we visited, most prospective teachers were underprepared students from poorly performing local schools, admitted under low admissions standards, taking easier versions of traditional liberal arts classes.
They arranged their own student-teaching assignments, often in failing schools without top-notch teachers to learn from, and they were coached to pass state licensure tests, on which they generally performed in the bottom quartile of all of the state's teacher candidates. This program has not been shut down or cut back. Indeed, it was recently accredited and will soon offer doctoral degrees.
Who is to blame? The university operating the program, the state rewarding its failure, the accreditors setting such low standards, or the districts hiring its graduates? There is plenty of blame to go around.
How might we do better? For starters, more stringent quality control.
Universities must conduct clear-eyed evaluations of teacher-education programs instead of treating them as cash cows. They must commit to close poor ones, strengthen promising ones, and expand strong ones within five years.
If universities do not carry out this responsibility, states must turn in their rubber stamps and conduct their own rigorous reviews, shutting down weak programs and helping middling ones build on their strengths. States also need better data systems, so that they can track student achievement gains and trace back the good (and bad) news to the programs that produced those students' teachers.
We also need to shift the home base of teacher education. Today, more than half of America's teachers (54 percent) are prepared in master's degree-granting institutions, as opposed to research universities that grant doctorates. On average, master's institutions require lower standardized admission test scores and high school grades than do research universities. They have higher student-to-faculty ratios, retain less distinguished faculty, and graduate less effective teachers than research universities.
Research universities tend to put teacher education on a lesser footing than most other fields. They must assume greater responsibility for teacher education, expanding their programs. States will have to invest in that expansion.
We need to end the old argument about whether teaching is a profession like law and medicine, requiring substantial education before one enters practice, or a craft like journalism to be learned on the job.
Teaching is a profession. It requires deep content knowledge, a familiarity with ways to teach that knowledge effectively, and an understanding of how young people learn and grow.
Future teachers should complete a traditional arts and sciences bachelor's degree in a content area such as math, history or English, and then undertake a year of graduate study to learn how to communicate their subject in ways that promote student learning.
Scholarships will also be necessary to encourage our most talented students to choose teaching careers over high -profile, better-paying professions.
Improving the quality of teaching will be an uphill battle until the nation is ready to pay teachers more. But that's no excuse not to clean up Dodge City. We must ensure that teachers are prepared in programs that are held to high standards and are engaged in the pursuit of excellence, not irrelevance.
Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and president emeritus of Teachers College, Columbia University.