Guest Column

Holding Higher Education Accountable for New Teachers

by Julia Steiny

Superintendents and principals have long wondered what on earth their new teachers had been doing when studying to become a teacher.

Many if not most teachers come to their first classroom woefully under-prepared for real kids in real schools.

About a year ago, the Education Schools Project, a critical assessment of the nation’s 1,200 schools of education, issued a scathing report, “Educating Teachers.” Directed by Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, the project’s report confirmed what educators have long suspected. Few programs are very good. Fully 62 percent of the graduates of teacher-education programs felt they’d been poorly prepared “to cope with the realities of the classroom.”

And many colleges use their teacher-prep programs as cash cows to support other less income-generating departments. With low admissions and academic standards — and virtually no accountability — the colleges are not motivated to compete for the best students and train them efficiently. Requiring pointless course work is money in their pockets.

A Quick Remedy
My biggest beef with teacher-prep programs is how few operate in close, reciprocal partnerships with actual public schools — beyond agreements for placing student teachers. To be licensed at all, every teacher-preparation program should be embedded in at least one practicum site for each grade level it professes to teach.

The Education Schools Project praises the program at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kan., for teaching primarily in a practicum setting, where anyone can observe the quality and philosophy of the program’s student and mentor teachers. Professors help the practicum school shape the curriculum and practices. If the school itself does not thrive with the college’s presence, the program should stop.

Without such a partnership, how do professors stay current with the needs of actual schools, districts and children? They can’t. They teach a lot of theory and methodology that has no practical application.

So here’s a quick bureaucratic fix: Require the colleges and universities to certify their own teachers. The state would still issue a license, which could be quickly revoked if need be, but the responsibility for teacher quality would rest with the universities. Faculty certainly know their students’ merits better than the staff at a state education agency possibly could. The state’s energies would be far better spent on overseeing the work of the institutions than on auditing individual transcripts that colleges already prepared and approved for a diploma. Make the diploma the certificate.

Then certifications would cease to be mere permission slips, like fishing licenses, but have brand names, like Emporia State, Stanford or the Curry School, to use the Education Schools Project’s examples. When the state issues a license, it can collect data on the new teacher and over time create reports that tell us how the teachers are doing. Branding the certification holds the institution accountable for what precisely it prepared its students for. If a college’s poor reputation becomes an obstacle for placing students in jobs, the program will either go out of business or change. Isn’t this the sort of accountability we’re hoping for from schools themselves? Why not apply it to the colleges?

Rhode Island Reform
I’ve been asking professors and deans in teacher-preparation programs if there weren’t at least one student currently in their program they probably would not certify if the institution had to take responsibility for him or her. After a deep breath, they each said yes. Often those less-than-desirable students had poor people skills but were academic high performers. For them, state certification becomes a shield against their inadequacies. Get rid of it.

When she took the helm a year and a half ago, Paulajo Gaines, Rhode Island’s director of the office of certification, found a department mainly involved with compliance and checklists. “But now the focus is on teacher quality,” she says.

To free up time to work on program approval and improving teacher quality, her state office has begun a system of “batch certification” to process students from a trusted institution faster and with somewhat less auditing. Rhode Island has developed its own program-approval process, which is significantly more rigorous than that of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education — an accreditation the Education Schools Project disdains. Already Rhode Island’s state education agency has shut down a leadership-training program at one of the colleges. In general, Gaines’ office is working as up close and personally as it can with the teacher-prep institutions in the state. But the state education agency could do much more.

For example, Gaines says, “I’m pushing higher ed to accept the fact that they can’t graduate students and say goodbye. I want them to partner with districts and unions to mentor teachers in their first three years.” Higher education is so out of touch with the actual schools, she adds, “they don’t offer training that we know we need.”

State licensing is all we need. State certification is redundant. Having the universities certify their own removes a layer of bureaucracy, shifts state energies to ensuring and supporting program quality and makes the colleges accountable. It’s certainly worth a try.

Julia Steiny is the education columnist for the Providence Sunday Journal in Providence, R.I. E-mail: She wrote an earlier version of this column for the newspaper.