Administration

After Years Lambasting Teacher-Ed Programs, Art Levine Creates One

Chronicle photo by Julia Schmalz

Arthur Levine once called the range of quality in graduate programs in the discipline "inadequate to appalling."
June 16, 2015

The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, headed by one of the most visible critics of teacher-education programs, is creating its own graduate school and research center in the field in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The new venture, the Woodrow Wilson Academy for Teaching and Learning, will offer master’s degrees entirely through a competency-based program. It will provide instruction largely through online teaching, and will conduct research on new approaches to teacher education and school leadership. It will also distribute its course modules as free "open source" materials to any colleges that want to use them in their own master’s programs or in professional-development courses that teachers take throughout their careers.

"We’re hoping to reach tens of thousands of people," said Arthur Levine, president of the foundation, who announced the venture on Tuesday at a news conference with MIT’s president.

Mr. Levine, a former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, has been known for his prior critiques of teacher-education programs, at one point calling the range of quality in graduate programs in school leadership "inadequate to appalling" and too often valued by their universities mostly as a "cash cow."

For Mr. Levine, the new academy is a chance to put into practice much of what he has been advocating in his decade as a public critic, and to apply what the foundation has learned through its teaching-fellowship program, which has worked with state policy leaders and 28 schools of education during his eight-year tenure as president there.

"Anybody can throw bricks," said Mr. Levine. Now he'll focus on the question: "Can you change it?"

The venture also builds on some of the ambitions for greater educational experimentation that MIT articulated last year in its report on its own future. That plan called for MIT to become more involved with elementary and secondary education; to make greater use of competency-based teaching, blended learning, and simulations; and to develop new roles for professors and new kinds of credentials. The new academy is "a chance to apply it all to teacher education," said Mr. Levine.

Hands-On Focus

Experts predict the United States will need more than 1.5 million new teachers over the next decade. And as a report from the American Institutes for Research recently noted, many of those same experts agree that the teacher-preparation field needs to become more selective in admitting candidates and to make licensure more stringent. The report also said that the programs should be more grounded in hands-on models with more-effective mentoring.

The teaching academy will start out small; 25 students will attend free in the first class, beginning in the fall of 2017. After that, the academy hopes to enroll about 200 students who will each pay about $15,000 for a degree earned by satisfying the required competencies set out in several modules. The program will focus at first on training teachers for mathematics, and the sciences, working directly with two MIT professors: Eric Klopfer, an expert in the use of computer games and simulations to understand science, and Vijay Kumar, MIT’s associate dean of digital learning.

To develop the competencies, the academy will work with Charlotte Danielson, whose Framework for Teaching rubrics are employed in many school districts around the country. (In some cases the rubrics are controversial because they aren’t grounded in curricula.) MIT will provide the STEM knowledge as well as expertise in technology and cognitive development.

In addition to the program for STEM educators, Mr. Levine said the academy would offer a master’s in school leadership, modeled on the M.B.A. in education leadership that the Wilson foundation has been promoting in three states. He said he envisioned the research side of the academy as the "Bell Labs of education."

The academy for teaching and learning is backed by more than $7 million, including $2 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, $3 million from the Amgen Foundation, and $2 million from the Wilson foundation. Mr. Levine said he hoped to eventually raise $30 million for the effort.

Crowded Field

The academy joins an already-crowded field. More than 600 colleges now offer master’s degrees or other credentials beyond a bachelor’s degree in teaching. A range of other programs, including Teach for America, newly created institutions like the Relay Graduate School of Education, in New York City, and teacher-certification programs offered by charter schools, also prepare people for teaching jobs and careers.

Jenny DeMonte, author of the new report from the American Institutes for Research on teacher preparation, said the academy’s focus on studying what works in training teachers was especially welcome. "There’s so little research about what teachers should know" to be effective, she said. And having MIT involved "puts some research chops behind it."

Donald E. Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University, said that with so many other options right now, it remains to be seen whether the new academy would have a significant impact on the field. In teacher education, he noted, the one thing everyone agrees on is "clinical experience is very important." The key questions for the academy, he said, are: "What will the supervision be for this program? Where will the students be placed?" The academy plans to work closely with public schools in and around Boston.

Mr. Heller said the academy’s idea of making its modules and materials freely available is generous and notable, but may not necessarily be as transformative as Mr. Levine hopes because, as the Michigan State dean noted, it will be debatable whether they will improve on what’s already available.

"For a lot of people it will be, ‘Oh, here’s one more person competing with us,’" said Mr. Heller. But because of the partners and Mr. Levine’s visibility in the field, he said, "this will be watched a lot more closely" than some of the others.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.