Secretary's Talk About Teachers Colleges Isn't All Negative

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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan criticized schools of education for being "mediocre" and states for not demanding more of teacher training.
October 22, 2009

It's been a rough month for the nation's teacher colleges.

Two weeks ago, in a speech at the University of Virginia, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called teachers colleges the "neglected stepchild" of higher education. On Thursday, he was back at it, accusing "many, if not most" of the country's 1,450 schools, colleges, and departments of education of doing a "mediocre" job of preparing potential teachers for the rigors of the modern classroom.

Yet the secretary's remarks, delivered on Thursday in a speech at Columbia University, weren't nearly as negative as the early excerpts of his speech suggested, and some educators who attended the speech left it feeling more inspired than maligned. Although the secretary offered plenty of criticism of teacher-training colleges, he also cited several "shining examples" of colleges and states that have upgraded their programs, including Louisiana, and said he was optimistic that "the seeds of real change have been planted."

He also blamed universities and states for many of the problems confronting teachers colleges, saying it would be "far too simple" to fault colleges of education for the slow pace of reform. He accused universities of using teachers colleges as "cash cows" and "profit centers" to finance "prestigious but underenrolled graduate departments," and he criticized states for approving weak teacher-education programs and licensing exams, and for neglecting teacher outcomes.

"I do not understand when college presidents and deans of the arts and science faculty ignore their teacher-preparation programs—and yet complain about the cost of providing remedial classes to freshmen," Mr. Duncan said.

Sharon P. Robinson, president and chief executive of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said that while some of the secretary's criticism was "hard to hear," the tone of the speech was more upbeat than the one he delivered at the University of Virginia two weeks ago. Many educators found that speech "demoralizing" and "inflammatory" because it ignored the progress that teacher-education programs have made, she said.

"The secretary did not intend this speech to be University of Virginia, Part 2," she said. "I felt that the speech was really instructive. … It pointed us to where we needed to go."

Still, some educators and students said that the secretary painted teachers colleges with too broad a brush, arguing that strong education programs now outnumber weak ones.

"He's half right. There are some programs out there that should close their doors," said P. David Pearson, dean of the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Education. "But most of the programs I know … are really solid."

Sandra L. Robinson, dean of the University of Central Florida's College of Education, agreed, saying teachers colleges have already undergone the sort of "sea change" that Mr. Duncan called for in his speech.

"I think there have been radical changes to colleges of education in the last 10 years," she said.

Others said the secretary's criticisms of teachers colleges were fair but complained that his proposed solutions were too vague. Though Mr. Duncan cited several examples of "real improvements" and "change," at the college, state, and school-district levels, and promised more federal aid for teacher-education programs, some educators felt that his solutions lacked specifics.

"I was left disappointed with the 'next steps' part of his talk," said Jon D. Snyder, dean of Bank Street College's Graduate School of Education. "I heard there was a lot more money than ever before but did not hear a compelling vision, let alone a coherent set of strategies, for how to improve things."

Wendy Katz, a second-year student at Bank Street College of Education and a former education aide to then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, agreed.

"The secretary's speech was long on criticism, but short on constructive solutions," she said. "I am hoping this is just the beginning."