Leadership & Governance

A Teacher-Education Critic Turns Graduate-School Creator

Arthur Levine, Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation

June 16, 2015

Video produced by Julia Schmalz
Arthur Levine shares his insights on what went into the creation of the open-source Woodrow Wilson Academy for Teaching and Learning.

Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and a past president of Teachers College at Columbia University, is well known as a vocal critic of teacher-education programs. Now he’s putting his foundation’s money, and that of other backers, where his critique has been. The foundation, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is creating a new graduate school of education, coupled with an "incubator and innovation lab," to train teachers and school leaders in a manner he calls more suitable for the information economy and the digital age. Last week he visited The Chronicle's offices to share some of the thinking – and a few of the trendy buzzwords – behind the new Woodrow Wilson Academy for Teaching and Learning.



GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: We're here today with Art Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Hi, Art. Thanks for joining us here at The Chronicle.

ARTHUR LEVINE: It's always nice to be with you.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Well, glad to have you. The reason we have you here today is because you just announced the new Woodrow Wilson Academy for Teaching and Learning at MIT. Congratulations on that.


GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: But it strikes me that this is a little bit of a put-up-or-shut-up moment for you. You've been writing about teacher education now for five or 10 years, identifying some of the faults. I think you, in the past, have said some of the training has ranged from inadequate to appalling. So what does this moment mean for you right now with the launching of this new academy?

ARTHUR LEVINE: I think this is real different than anything we've ever done before. As opposed to saying, Let's make what we're doing better, what we're saying this time is, The whole world changed. And no matter how good whatever we had in the past was, it's now out of date.

And we need to create something dramatically different, an education for the 21st century. And that's something that we haven't discussed before. And that's probably the largest challenge we've ever faced.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: And for you, you've been a pretty vocal critic, sometime have taken some grief for some of that.


GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Moi, yeah. Maybe not so much grief, but what does this mean for you right now? Are you feeling that this is your chance to kind of prove yourself, or —?

ARTHUR LEVINE: I've sort of had a chance to do that for a while. When I first got to Woodrow Wilson, what we did was we thought, OK, anybody can throw bricks, can you fix it?

And so we started, at Woodrow Wilson, creating state-based teacher-education programs. So the idea was, you'd create a fellowship in a state. And then what would happen is, you'd go create a coalition of all the major political leaders. Then you'd go recruit really strong people to go become STEM teachers in high-needs schools.

But the next part was, you'd go work with universities, transform their teacher-education programs. And we've ended up working with 33 universities in five states. And the one thing that came out of that that we learned was teacher-education programs can be strong. Universities can create them so they can attract strong students.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: So why do this? You've got —

ARTHUR LEVINE: Because what we're basically saying now is, it's really important to be able to repair them. But what's critical at this point is you really need to reinvent them because they're premised upon a model that doesn't work anymore.

And the real difficulty is not something that pertains to ed schools alone. The real difficulty is, look, our country's changing. We're going from this national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy.

And every one of our social institutions, whether it's government, or schools, or your business, media, or health care, they're all created for the former. And what you got to do is try to fix them. And there are two ways in which they need to be fixed.

One's immediate, which is we've got to make what we got better than it is now, and that's what we've been working at. But then there's the next step, which is we really need to reinvent it for a global, digital, information economy. And an example of that is, we're building competency-based programs. And that sounds real jargony.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Yeah, actually, your program — going through the list, you hit every buzzword in there. "Competency-based," "open source," "assessments" — you've hit all the buzzwords. I think the only one you don't have is "big data" in there.

ARTHUR LEVINE: Aw, nuts. I don't know how we missed that one. But even so, I think the notion — I hate the fact that competency has become such a buzzword. What we're really saying is, Look, the way education has worked historically is that all we focused on was time — seat time, how many years to study, how many courses you had to take, how many credits to accumulate.

It was all about how long you were taught at. And we're saying, That really doesn't matter. What matters is, What's the student learned? And what we're doing with this is saying —

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Why is that particularly important in teacher education?

ARTHUR LEVINE: I think it's important in everything, not just teacher education. But as opposed to saying, Gee, if you have 36 hours, and you have x number of hours in the classroom, you're capable of being a teacher. That's just not true.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Do you think some of the teacher-education programs right now are just too reliant on — I mean, there's a lot of questions about whether they're strong enough. They're just too much about time and not enough about quality.

ARTHUR LEVINE: Sure. They're too much about time, not enough about what you learned. The key is, Look, what do you have to be able to know and be able to do if you're going to be a good entering teacher? And then the question becomes, Look, do you have those skills? Do you have that knowledge?

And rather than saying you took a bunch of courses, what we're saying is, In this program you achieved every one of those skills and all of that knowledge, and you're now fit to be a teacher. Given who you are, maybe you could do that in a few weeks. Given who I am, this could take years.

But the fact is, we each advance at our own rate. And the notion behind it would be mastery. You have to master the outcomes.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: So one of the other things that I found very intriguing about this is the open-source element of it. Your idea is to try to, I guess, use this academy and also the research that takes place at the academy to inform the field. Why's that even important?

ARTHUR LEVINE: Because I think today there are lots and lots of hothouse experiments going on in education. And that doesn't have a lot of interest. The real question is, How do you affect policy, and how do you affect practice?

So the thing we're putting together has two parts. One part is a graduate school that offers programs in school leadership and teaching. And the other one's a laboratory. And what the laboratory does is study what works.

OK, so if you take the first piece and you say, All right, why would you make that open source? The answer is: So any university in the United States can take all of it, they can take part of it, but they can adopt it. The idea is: Make this thing adoptable.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Do people really want to adopt your stuff? Aren't they very happy just working with what they have? That's why there are all these programs right now.

ARTHUR LEVINE: But what if you could show that it worked? I mean, try to imagine this, OK. You create a class, and a third of it looks like Teach for America, and a third of it looks like career-changers, and a third of it looks like traditional ed-school students.

And they go through this program. How long do they take to graduate? Do they graduate? Once they're in a classroom, what's achievement look like in their classes? Do these people stay in the profession?

If you get all that data together, the goals are really twofold. One is: Feed it to universities and say, Look, here's what we know. Here's a showroom. Take anything you like from this showroom. Give them what we know.

The other thing is: Take everything we've learned, and not so much publish in the journal, but get it into the hands of governors, legislators, chief state school officers, state higher-education executive officers, who are hungry to figure out how to change teacher education and make it stronger. It's the idea of, get it into the hands of policy makers and practitioners, and maybe you can create broader-scale change.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Why this one versus all the other school programs that are out there right now? There's a lot of really innovative things happening right now in teacher education. Maybe not at the scale that you want, but certainly they're out there. Who needs your school, really?

ARTHUR LEVINE: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I think what's really behind this is the notion that this one really is different. This is an entirely different model. And again we're back to the word "competency," but it's outcome-based. This is very, very different.

I think you're going to see that it looks different technologically. It's going to look different in terms of the kind of instruction.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Oh yeah. That was the other word that I was missing, "hybrid instruction." That's a big one in there too, right?

ARTHUR LEVINE: Glad we didn't leave that one out.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Assessment also was — and a different kind of faculty.

ARTHUR LEVINE: Accept that's what it's really about. Which is, OK, so you got these competencies. OK, it's a list of the things you've got to know and be able to do. So what I got to be able to do is figure out where you stand out of all those things. And, lo and behold, the name for that's "assessment."

And then once we've assessed where you are, we've got to provide something to help you get to where you need to go. And those are the hybrid modules, or whatever we call them. They're instructional units that are tied to the competencies.

And the idea is, as opposed to simply saying you get three credits, you show up 15 weeks, we do an hour a day for three days. What we're saying here is, Look, all we care is that at the end of this you know how to manage a class.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Is there something today — we're doing this interview in 2015, you have been writing about this for 10 years at least — is there something in the environment right now you think that will make this more easily accepted by the academy, by people?

ARTHUR LEVINE: Yeah, I do. I think a bunch of things are happening right now. One is, I've never had the sense of pressure on the part of policy makers. They want this thing to be better, and they're hungry for solutions.

The other thing that's happened is that universities are feeling real pressure to begin to do a better job. And the other thing that's happening is, all kinds of providers who aren't universities are really getting into teacher education. And whether it's charter schools, or it's for-profit companies, or it's new organizations, they're all getting into this area. So it's becoming much more competitive, and they need to do it better.

And I think the other piece is, when I talked a little while ago about society going from industrial to information, industrial societies are all about fixed process and fixed time. Information economies are all about outcomes.

And in a very real sense, what we've done is we've tapped into where the society is moving. It's, we have standards in schools, we're going to move to standards in higher education. And that's all we've done. I think it's the right move at the right time.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: I know when you look at the teaching profession overall, we need about 1.5 million new teachers over the next decade. There's a lot of reasons teachers don't go into the field: low pay, low status. How can this really help some of those issues?

ARTHUR LEVINE: I can't help with all of those issues. I mean, the fact is, this won't change the salaries. This won't change the pension funds. The one thing it might do is attract some really strong people to this profession, and give them a stronger education than they've had in the past.

With our other programs, the one thing we found was that if you give them really good mentoring, and you give them a really good education, some very bright people teaching in high-needs schools will really stay on. After four years in our other programs, we still have an 81-percent retention rate.

We can do those kinds of things. We can make those the norms and show why they're the norms. The whole emphasis here is really on: Can you change practice at scale by showing how it works? Can you give a showroom to all of teacher education about how to do it?

And people are talking about things like competencies, and blended programs, and hybrid programs, and assessment. They're too hard to do. But imagine if you could see it at work and decide that you want to do it after seeing it. And that's really what we're hoping for.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: And you mentioned the word "scale," which is, I guess, that last buzzword which we hadn't hit so far, which is, I guess, an important part of that.

ARTHUR LEVINE: Thank God we didn't leave out a buzzword.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Right, that's good. Anyway, thank you so much for joining us today. It's really been a nice conversation.

ARTHUR LEVINE: For me too. Thanks, Goldie.



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.