For all the recent conversation about public school reform, including President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address, relatively little has been said about the way we prepare college students for teaching careers.
Since 2000 and with the encouragement of the federal and state governments, increasing numbers of students are bypassing colleges of education, the traditional training ground for school personnel, and entering the profession through alternative means.
Historically, colleges of education and state governments have overseen the process of teacher preparation, often to the detriment of students and the educational process. State governments took control of teacher preparation standards several decades ago when they decided that the educational preparation of teachers was too important to be left to universities.
The accrediting agencies for universities and Colleges of Education became the watchdogs for these state requirements. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, for example, dogmatically have insisted that teachers follow this path despite the decline in teacher quality over several decades.
With the support of college of education experts, legislatures designated course and training requirements for prospective teachers before they could be certified to teach. Typically these requirements specified an extraordinary dose of educational methodology courses at the expense of disciplinary courses (English, history, chemistry, mathematics, etc.), a teaching practicum, and test scores on certification exams.
These specific and confining academic regulations, in particular, have fostered an educational environment through which many of the weakest graduates of state and private universities have matriculated on their way into the nation's schools. The best university students, especially when women pursued other fields of learning in the 1970s, have consistently rejected this curriculum in favor of the more rigorous disciplinary fields, which then also gave them the option to pursue various career and postgraduate educational opportunities.
For many years, academic leaders have criticized the preparation of education majors at their universities. But with the state controlling the educational preparation process, and accrediting bodies and colleges of education fiercely defending these requirements, administrators and educational reformers have been unable to revamp a curriculum that they generally hold in low regard.
In 1990, state governors, reacting to the critical writings of education reformers and journalists, began raising questions about teacher preparation programs. As Florida governors, Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush were among those who led the way nationally in calling for a more rigorous preparation of teachers, particularly those teaching in the disciplines.
Despite their leadership, the education bureaucracy did not yield easily to governors, who discovered, much to their surprise, that they did not control this process. It either fell under the authority of commissioners of education or under a labyrinth of educational bureaucrats.
Frustrated by the inability of states to enhance the educational process for teachers, governors and reformers turned to the federal government for help. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both embraced the call for reform — Bush through "No Child Left Behind" and Obama through "Race to the Top." Their proposed reforms included a call for a "revolutionary change" in teacher preparation programs. Obama's secretary of education, Arne Duncan, iterated in October 2009 that "many, if not most, of the nation's 1,450 schools, colleges, and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom."
Laying the groundwork for the reform efforts of both presidents were steps taken by Teach for America and the New Teacher Project sites across the country that required teachers to be grounded in a discipline — thereby bypassing most, if not all, the curriculum in colleges of education.
Mississippi embraced the new model in 2008 by providing direct subsidy to Teach for America — circumventing its own system of teacher preparation. In 2009, a Louisiana study found that teachers who followed this educational path had a much larger impact on student achievement than those prepared by colleges of education.
These academic reforms are important steps in strengthening our schools, improving the quality of our teachers, and in meeting the educational challenge confronting this nation. Alone they are not the answer, as the president noted the other evening, but they are essential in laying the foundation for a great teaching corps.