Spotlight Q&A: Arthur Levine on Raising the Bar for New Teachers

John Mooney | July 31, 2013 | Education
Renowned critic of traditional teacher-education programs talks about theory versus practice and how to raise the standards for education schools

arthur levine
Arthur Levine has never been shy about expressing his views on teacher education, and specifically what he thinks isn’t working. The former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, Levine has been a leading critic of traditional teacher programs in colleges and universities for having too low standards and inadequate results. His 2006 “Educating School Teachers” is among his most noted works.

Since, 2006, he has been president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, a Princeton-based organization that is helping to train math and science teachers for high-poverty schools in four states, including New Jersey. Among his many roles, Levine is also on the board of Relay Graduate School of Education, a new teacher education program recently approved for New Jersey.

As New Jersey politicians and policy makers consider proposals to raise standards for New Jersey’s own teacher programs, NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney sat down with Levine in his Princeton office this week to talk about the state of teacher education in New Jersey and nationwide, his suggestions for reforms, and his models for success.

Q: Speak to the state of teacher education and preparation in New Jersey and nationwide.

A: The problems of teacher education are the same all over the country. Education schools tend to be low in selectivity, more so for elementary education programs than for high school. Second, there is very little connection between universities and the schools, a large gap between theory and practice. And third, the curriculum doesn’t make a lot of sense.

We can’t figure out if it is a profession or a craft. If it is a profession like medicine, you need a lot of education before you enter the classroom, but if a craft, then the amount of education is less and there’s much more learning on the job. We can’t decide which one of those things is true right now.

In many respects, teacher education is the Dodge City of American education.

Q: So what do you think, is it a craft or a profession?

A: I think it is a profession. I think they need a lot of education before they enter the classroom. People who tend to have the least education and come from the weakest background…are most likely to teach in highest-need schools. So the kids who need the most support and strongest teachers are getting the weakest, with the highest turnover rates.

Q: Then what should be in that education?

A: It is theory and practice. You wouldn’t educate a doctor without teaching that doctor to do surgery or do diagnosis on real patients. Similarly we can’t create teachers who don’t know how to teach. Theory is inadequate, but so is practice. They have to go hand in hand.

Q: A lot of colleges do that, don’t they? They are teaching the pedagogy, the theory, child development, and then they have the field experience, the student teaching.

A: You can create a process with a lot of really good machines but still not turn out a decent product, because the machines are not connected with each other. When the fellowship approaches colleges to participate, we think it needs the following elements. We want it to focus on learning, we want to know how well the students in your graduates’ classes are performing. Second, we want it to be clinically based, a program that integrates theory and practice and tied to the school calendar and not the university calendar. If we get this right, the program you study in your academic classes will be things you see in the school tomorrow. The idea is practice and theory will be inextricably linked.

Q: Should it be a graduate-level program?

A: It should be a master’s program. The rationale is we think that anybody teaching in a subject area really needs the content and should have the same (undergraduate) major as any other student would have. And we believe the teacher education should be a graduate specialization. You have studied physics and now you will take specialization in how you convey physics.

Q: Give us a primer on the Woodrow Wilson teacher fellowship program.

A: We are now in four states — Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and New Jersey, the most recent. When we enter into a state, we create a coalition of the governor, the chief state school officer, legislators on both sides of the aisles, the unions and the universities and schools.

We recruit high-ability people to become STEM teachers in high-needs school districts, and give them a $30,000 stipend to take a one-year master’s program in teaching that field. The people we get are incredibly heterogeneous, including career changers in their 30’s or 40’s and those a few years out of college. In New Jersey, there will be 60 a year.

Q: What’s its status in New Jersey? The schools have been selected – Montclair State University, William Paterson University, The College of New Jersey, Rutgers-Camden and Rowan. Have the students started yet?

A: We are just recruiting the first class. When we go to universities, we give them 18 to 21 months to create the program, and we won’t recruit students until the program is in place.

Q: Colleges are also teamed with districts. What districts are involved?

A: Montclair State is with Newark, Irvington and Orange; William Paterson with Paterson; College of New Jersey with Trenton and New Brunswick; and Rutgers [working with Rowan] will be in Camden and all others around them, like Bridgeton and Vineland. All are Abbott districts. We will have enough teachers to fill all their vacancies in STEM.

Q: New Jersey is on its way to raising GPA requirements for new teachers, there will be public reporting on how students do come out of teacher education programs, and there is talk of requirements for curriculum, too. Are these the right policy components to improve teacher education?

A: I think it makes tremendous sense to have a requirement for a B, a GPA of 3.0. That is based on who succeeds and who doesn’t in this profession. There are sharp differences for those who come in with lower grades. And there does need to be an emphasis on learning, it is really important to know how your graduates are doing. And the third ingredient is curriculum. Generic methods courses don’t make sense, the way we teach math is not the same as how we teach literature.

Q: Is there a place for John Dewey and other theoretical giants of teacher education?

A: What matters more now or will matter in the long run is biology more than philosophy. We are actually learning how people learn. Philosophy was a proxy, guessing how people learn.

Q: Are there other components needed to improve the quality of teachers coming out of programs, such as the pay that awaits them?

A: Pay matters. There was a wonderful study by McKinsey that compares what happens in other countries and what happens here. If you look at others, they are taking from the top 10 percent of students, and in the U.S. a relatively small proportion come from the top 10th. It found that you could really bump up those coming from the top 10th if you bump up salaries, bump up bonuses, bump up money for teacher education and professional development. And it really matters in areas like math and science, where they are competing with industries that pay a lot more.

Q: Let’s talk about the Relay graduate school program, where you serve on its board. It’s a master’s education program now waiting final approval from the state Secretary of Higher Education. It is very practice-based, working on a specific approach for specific kinds of schools. Is that a model for others?

A: This is a time where we have an old model, and we have two choices, repair it or create anew. And both need to go on hand in hand. We don’t have the perfect model, and I still think universities are the best place to prepare teachers. Ninety percent of all teachers come out of universities and, given that, that is a great place to go to improve teacher education.

But I wouldn’t have joined the Relay board if I didn’t believe in it. What Relay has is it is focusing on outcomes, and it can boast every one of its graduates have managed to boost student achievement at least a year. In addition, when you look at curriculum, you have people already in classrooms, and they are providing the skills and knowledge what they need. It’s a very practical program, and what I like about it most is it is competency based and outcome based.

Q: Should it have more training in theory?

A: No program is perfect and would I like more theory in it, yes, and I always talk about more theory. But I think it is extraordinarily strong program that should be thought of as a model.

Q: On this and other subjects of teacher preparation, you have sometimes butted heads with college and university leaders. Is that changing? Do you see them evolving — or yourself?

A: I find myself in an unusual role. I have been a critic of universities and their preparation of educators, and at the same time I have been a defender of them publicly. I think they remain the best place to prepare teachers, but I don’t think they are good enough now.

And I’m not saying all. We chose the universities we did for the fellowship because we feel they have the capacity to create the programs of the future. Montclair has a reputation around the country. We didn’t choose programs we thought were weak.

But the politics are no different than in the field of journalism. We have an establishment that has done things the way they always have, and we are moving to alternatives around that. The difference is journalism is consumer-driven and mine is still provide-driven.