'Teacher U': A New Model in Employer-Led Higher Education

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle

December 13, 2009

One evening in 2005, Norman Atkins and David Levin were sitting in a restaurant with several beers between them, talking about things that left them sleepless in the small hours of the morning.

Both men had founded networks of charter schools operating in and around New York City. Supported with public money and free from bureaucratic control, their schools had made remarkable strides in helping low-income and minority children learn. Both had attracted millions of new dollars from philanthropy and were primed to expand. But they were haunted by the shared prospect of their most valuable resource—teachers—running dry.

So they decided to do what they knew best: create education organizations in a shape very different from the standard mold. In doing so, they set a course that could change the way higher education trains professionals of all kinds.

Atkins's organization is called Uncommon Schools, while Levin co-founded the Knowledge Is Power Program, the nation's largest charter network, with 82 schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia. A third network, Achievement First, quickly came on board. All of their models depend on talented teachers working in intensive, coordinated systems of instruction and student support.

It's demanding work, and the existing university-based process of teacher training and licensure wasn't giving them enough of the staff that they required. They went looking for a partner, someone who could train people to teach successfully in their schools. They found one in David Steiner, then dean of the Hunter College School of Education.

Steiner was a kindred spirit; he, too, had found establishment education schools wanting. And he, too, had chosen to do something about it, by taking the reins at Hunter, part of the City University of New York, after stints as chair of Boston University's department of education policy and as director of arts education for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Steiner thought teacher education should be far more grounded in the practice of classroom instruction, based on clinical training, creative use of video observation, and development of specialized teaching skills. He believed credentials should depend on success in the actual public-school classroom, not just the college lecture hall. Atkins and Levin agreed and offered their own most successful teachers to help lead the way.

The result was Teacher U at Hunter College, a unique nonprofit program led by Atkins. One hundred students enrolled in the two-year master's program in 2008, and 300 more began this fall. Students teach full time during the week, then meet one Saturday a month, when they're taught by a combination of Hunter faculty members and master teachers from the charter schools. While participation by Hunter faculty members is strictly voluntary, all three departmental chairs committed to teaching, as did Steiner himself. Students and professors collaborate in analyzing video of classroom instruction, and instructors model many of the techniques that students themselves will ultimately use. Crucially, candidates will have to demonstrate real learning gains among their students in order to earn degrees.

Much can be learned from Teacher U. It throws the near-total absence of social entrepreneurialism in higher education into sharp relief. In recent decades, scores of men and women like Atkins and Levin have founded nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping disadvantaged elementary and secondary students in a variety of ways, like designing new schools and recruiting the best and brightest into the classroom, or developing new models of leadership, professional development, and instruction. There is nothing comparable in higher education, where much of the creative energy and outside-the-box thinking is focused in the burgeoning for-profit sector. It's no surprise that one of the most intriguing higher-education innovations in years had its genesis in public schools.

More fundamentally, Teacher U is the consequence of a higher-education system that has never managed to reconcile the contradictions between its past and present or to fully integrate the logic of its scholarly and teaching missions.

The research-university model, in which scholarship reigns supreme, was established over a century ago. When the nation needed to accommodate the huge mid-20th-century influx of new students, it converted teacher-training institutes into universities that were organized in the standard scholar-focused fashion. Those universities, in turn, did what universities do: recruit Ph.D.'s, publish, and focus on training people for graduate research.

The problem is that the study and the practice of education aren't the same thing. They are related, but only to a point. And university-based schools of education get no reward for training teachers well. Inevitably, education schools evolved in response to institutional incentives and the research-university culture. Faculty members focused on developing specialized knowledge with little connection to the complex everyday challenges of the classroom. To see evidence of that, look no further than the sprawling annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, which produces a phonebook-size compendium of presentations with titles like "Complicating Swedish Feminist Pedagogy" and "The Hermeneutic Process Pertaining to Laozi."

At the same time, studies examining the relationship between having a master's degree in education and being effective in the classroom (most conducted in departments of economics, not education) nearly always find that no such relationship exists—despite the fact that states pay teachers an extra $8.6-billion in salary per year for acquiring those degrees. People including Arthur Levine, a former president of Columbia University's Teachers College, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have offered stinging critiques of education schools in recent years. It's little wonder that Atkins and Levin decided to build their own program from the ground up.

It is a sign of things to come. Most students enroll in college to pursue careers. The most popular undergraduate major, by far, is business, while education and health professions check in at Nos. 3 and 4. Institutions that give the demands of the professional workplace short shrift will eventually exhaust the good will of students and employers. With information technology breaking down barriers to entering the higher-education market, and the economic stakes of postsecondary learning intensifying for students and society alike, the inclination to sacrifice teaching for research will grow less tenable by the year.

Hunter College is a model of how universities can strike a balance between the demands of scholarship and professional training, working arm-in-arm with employers to combine the best of what academic research and hands-on practice have to offer. The big question is whether other universities will see the light.

In the meantime, David Steiner isn't waiting. In July he was elected state education commissioner by the New York State Board of Regents. If other nontraditional teacher-training programs emerge and are willing to subject themselves to rigorous evaluation, Steiner believes they deserve consideration—even if that means operating down the road without a formal university partner.

That raises a host of thorny regulatory issues, since universities currently have a legal monopoly on the production of teaching degrees. But that's not a viable long-term position. Industries that depend on government fiat for their livelihood are living on borrowed time. There are many more people out there, not just in education, who are unsatisfied with the students they hire from traditional academic programs. In the future, more of them are likely to take higher education into their own hands.

Kevin Carey is policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington.