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The Secretary Calls for a Sea Change

Speaking to a Teachers College audience on October 22nd, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Thursday called for a "sea-change" in the nation's teacher preparation programs and said most teachers colleges are "doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st-century classroom."
View the speech.

Speaking to a Teachers College audience on October 22nd, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Thursday called for a “sea-change” in the nation’s teacher preparation programs and said most teachers colleges are “doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st-century classroom.”

In a half-hour speech that inaugurated TC’s Phyllis L. Kossoff Lecture, Duncan praised Teachers College and many other education colleges that have provided high quality preparation programs for many years. But in general, he said, teacher preparation programs need a major overhaul if they are to help close the achievement gap between minority and white students, improve graduation rates, and prepare more students for college and the workplace.

“To keep America competitive, and to make the American dream of equal educational opportunity a reality, we need to recruit, reward, train, learn from and honor a new generation of talented teachers,” Duncan, speaking at the Alfred J. Lerner Hall on the Columbia University campus, told a crowd of nearly 900 that included TC faculty, students, staff and alumni, as well as elected officials and school leaders from New York City and beyond. The talk, which was Webcast live, can now be viewed here on iTunes. The full transcript of Duncan’s speech, including introductory remarks by TC President Susan Fuhrman and closing remarks by TC Board Vice Chair Laurie Tisch, can be viewed at here. “But the bar has been raised for successful teacher preparation programs, because we ask much more of our teachers today than even a decade ago.”

Earlier in the day, at TC’s Cowin Conference Center, Duncan was the keynote speaker at a practicum on community schools sponsored by the Children’s Aid Society. During his seven years as schools chief in Chicago, Duncan created more than 100 such schools, which serve as hubs of neighborhood and community life by offering children and families after-school programs, medical and dental care, and counseling, as well as music, sports, art, and homework help.

The Children’s Aid Society operates 21 community schools in New York City, in partnership with the Department of Education.

Community schools have been shown to increase attendance and graduation rates for children, Duncan said.  “Every school should be a community school. Schools that are open six hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year, are over. We need to convert that to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”

In introducing Duncan, who previously served as head of the Chicago public school system, to the Lerner audience, TC President Susan Fuhrman praised him for demonstrating “that valuable and all-too-rare skill in the field of education – the ability to unite parents, teachers, principals and business stakeholders behind an aggressive reform agenda.” She told Duncan that the TC community was “ready to hear your vision for improving teacher preparation, and we are excited about working together with you in the future to make it a reality.”

Duncan responded with a blunt assessment of the past and hope for the future. He took education programs to task for failing to prepare teachers to use data to inform and improve their teaching, and for the dearth of adequate hands-on classroom experience they provide to pre-service teachers.

He also said that teacher preparation is plagued by uninspired, outdated programming at the very moment when the nation is facing three unprecedented challenges. The first of these, he said is that, unlike 30 years ago, it is now impossible to drop out of high school and get a job that pays enough to raise a family. Second, Duncan said education has always been the way for low-income people and immigrants to advance, and it is now more important than ever to improve educational opportunities for low-income students.

And third: Of the 3.2 million teachers and principals who work in some 95,000 schools, more than half are Baby Boomers who will soon retire. By 2014, Duncan’s Department of Education projects that up to 1 million new teaching positions will need to be filled by new teachers.

“Teaching is going to be a booming profession in the years ahead – with school districts nationwide making up to 200,000 new, first-time hires annually,” Duncan said. And since education schools will provide the vast majority of new teachers, changes in education programs are critically important.

There are barriers to reform, Duncan acknowledged, including a historical lack of respect in the academic community for teacher education and for teachers (education programs are “the Rodney Dangerfield” of the university world, he said, historically dismissed “from the Oval Office to the provost’s office”), a shortage of quality research on what makes the best educational programs effective and improves student outcomes, inadequate hands-on training of pre-service teachers, and lack of training in how to use empirical data to improve instruction and boost learning.

Yet education colleges are not solely at fault, he added. Universities have used them as “cash cows,” diverting their substantial tuition revenue to less popular academic programs such as physics. States “routinely approve” teacher education programs without assessing their graduates’ readiness for the real world of teaching. Few track teacher performance to identify which preparation programs work best (the shining exception:  Louisiana, which has a rigorous program that ties student outcomes to teacher credentialing). And national accreditation is voluntary and insufficiently rigorous.

Yet Duncan said he saw reasons for hope. Among them:

  • Forty-eight states are cooperating on the development of common college and career- ready standards for high school students, and the federal government’s “Race to the Top” funding includes $350 million to develop assessments for the standards.
  • With “Race to the Top” funds, the U.S. Department of Education is rewarding states that publicly report and link student achievement to the programs where teachers and principals were credentialed. Both national teachers college accrediting bodies, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the American Association of colleges for Teacher Education, are backing the DOE’s drive to connect teacher preparation programs to better student outcomes.
  • The DOE also allocated $43 million to teacher preparation programs, including $9.75 million to Teachers College, to create teacher residency programs in which pre-service teachers will spend a year in a high-needs classroom in New York City alongside an experienced teacher and mentor.

Duncan singled out Teachers College for praise, saying it “explicitly trains students to use data to continuously improve their own instruction and target student learning gaps.” In addition, “every pre-service elementary education student at TC completes at least two semesters of student teaching, and, unlike some education schools, every student teacher in the program works under the careful supervision of a well-qualified mentor teacher.” He also praised TC for the research it conducts.

Duncan said that reform is already happening at elite schools of education such as TC, the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan’s School of Education, and the Stanford University School of Education and some smaller schools. And he drew loud applause when he cited one recent federal innovation: a new law, enacted in July 2009, that establishes income-based payment levels for loans for student teachers.

Still, he said, prior to a Q and A session and closing remarks by TC Board Vice Chair Laurie Tisch, there is much work to be done.

“The challenges facing our nation’s schools of education are great,” he concluded. “But so is the opportunity to better serve our children and the common good.” 

Published Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009


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