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Dr. Arthur Levine: Passionate About the Need to Redirect Teacher Education

President Levine recently talked about the College's mission to reduce educational inequality through its Campaign for Educational Equity.

Dr. Arthur Levine:
Passionate About the Need to Redirect Teacher Education

By Joan Baum Ph.D.

Although a new plan at Teachers College (TC) establishes "educational equity" as the major mission, a key word for the locus of related activities has already been changed. No longer an Institute, the new initiative is now the Campaign for Educational Equity, a shift in semantics that reflects a new emphasis on procedure. "Institute" sounded too formal, too establishment, says Dr. Arthur Levine, the president of TC. He wants a more activist and process-oriented center that will tell the public, we're uniting researchers here in the city and nation wide to look at issues in a real-world way. Does "Campaign" sound political? Well, yes and no, he answers. Yes, because the idea is to implement data-driven policies, to inform and influence policy makers, but no, in the sense that the work of the Campaign will be non-partisan. He jumps up, full of energy and impish excitement: "do you know what the number-one issue is facing the schools in the city?" Pause. Silence. "Glasses!"

That's right, preliminary studies have identified glasses as a major problem in low-income urban schools. Optometric examinations are not enough; sending information home is not practical. How do we deal with a situation that's seriously, adversely, affecting academic performance? Who pays for the glasses? What can be done to convince children to wear them, since glasses are not "cool?" How would the Campaign advocate for change, in this case and in general? By targeting the right audience, in this case legislators, whether at the city, state or federal level. Then by writing up the research findings in clear language and educating lawmakers and their staffs. Then by bringing in experts to testify at public hearings and offering demonstration programs, models that work. And because the Campaign will be a united effort, integrating major components-a think tank, a state-by-state report card on schools, an annual symposium, and model programs-it will have muscle. Dr. Levine already has the support of Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia, which means access to university scholars. The issue of school children needing, getting, and wearing glasses, for example, affects several disciplines: public health, law, social work, economics, psychology, journalism.

"Equity." For 30, 40 years we've called it "closing the achievement gap," Dr. Levine says, but not much has really changed and there's been backsliding. Why? Because public schools in cities are now overwhelmingly filled with lower-income children who bring with them numerous problems. Then, too, the states have changed the rules, the "marks of success," setting a common standard now for all school children (49 out of 50 states are now "outcome based"), regardless of starting point or special need. The economy has also changed, Dr. Levine adds, making a high-school diploma the minimum requirement for getting a job. There's no mystery here, he says, others have said it: pay urban teachers more, start the school day earlier, make the year longer, and focus research on creating practical models. Learning disabilities, for example, are not the same as learning difficulties, but special education models do not make appropriate distinctions. Brain research so far would suggest that each child should have a personal contract for education. Impossible? The Campaign will address such issues without taking refuge in simplistic all-purpose formulas. Perhaps teaching will become prescription and evaluation, diagnosis of learning processes and recommendations of individualized software. Who knows, but such forward thinking is also what the Campaign is about.

"The costs of educational inequality are tremendous, Dr. Levine reminds audiences, and most Ed.D. programs, as he has been quoted in The New York Times as saying, are "incoherent" if not failures. Educational equity must be put back on the national agenda, no matter how pressing the other problems-health care, elder care, social security. Pockets of excellence, such as TC- related schools in Harlem empowerment zones, must become known. Being the premier institution to gather, disseminate and advocate for research-based change will restore TC to its "historic mission," which at its founding was to serve "poor immigrant kids who weren't making it in New York," by training "a radical new breed of teachers."  About 70% of TC's faculty will be involved in the Campaign. "Nobody, but nobody, chooses to go into education because they're going to make a lot of money. They enter education because they're idealistic; they want to change the world." It is Dr. Arthur Levine's goal to realize once again this noble goal.

The article appeared in the March 2005 edition of Education Update.

Published Thursday, Apr. 28, 2005