Why we need GREAT colleges of education

August 11, 2011

As readers of this blog and my small-but-slowly-growing Twitter followers know, this past June Senator Michael Bennet introduced the GREAT Teachers and Principals Act, S. 1250. I haven’t stopped talking about the bill since, so I’m happy to finally be blogging this time about…well, still about GREAT! Specifically, I’d like to take a moment to explain and clarify some confusion that seems to have arisen around the interrelation between the GREAT Act and colleges of education, i.e., the teacher-training programs at universities that prepare the overwhelming majority of teachers in this country.

(For those who are unfamiliar with the GREAT Act, please check out my prior blog posts here and here for background.)

Shortly after GREAT Act was introduced, I was pleasantly surprised to read a very favorable review of the bill from one my favorite edu-bloggers, Larry Cuban, a highly respected education professor at Stanford (and former school superintendent too). As someone directly involved in training new teachers – and, let it be said, someone who is often skeptical of certain education “reform” ideas – Cuban’s support for selective, clinical-based training of the type the GREAT Act is intended to foster is particularly gratifying to have. Indeed, not only does he signal support for GREAT, Cuban also had kind words for the closely related teacher-training program underway at Aspire Public Schools, California’s leading high-performing charter network, which provides extensive clinical training and mentor support to prepare teachers to go into urban classrooms. In Cuban’s words:

I do not know whether The GREAT Act will become law. Nor do I know whether the Aspire Residency Program will continue into the next decade. I sure hope it will . . . . I hope it will persist and spread to non-charter public schools. It is the most recent incarnation of past efforts to blend school-based teacher training with social activism of college graduates to provide smart alternatives to university-based teacher education in creating good teachers for urban schools. 

One week later, however, I nearly choked on my morning Diet Coke when I read the first paragraph of a Washington Post editorial written by Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College, Columbia University. Now, before getting to the paragraph in question, a confession. I’ve never met Professor Levine, but he’s somewhat of a hero of mine. In fact, I have a dog-eared copy of his seminal report on colleges of education on my desk (which I refer to almost daily), and at my request, NewSchools reached out to him to seek his official support for GREAT. But at least for right now, that support is not forthcoming – though that may be because of some confusion over what the bill actually does. As Levine wrote (with my emphasis added):

A bill recently introduced in Congress, the GREAT Teachers and Principals Act, would designate programs based outside of universities as special academies for preparing teachers and principals. This misses the fundamental problem: a number of the nation’s teacher education programs are failing. It makes more sense to close the weak programs than to pay to create bandaids over them. 

The key fact this overlooks, however, is that the GREAT Act supports any innovative teacher program that meet its basic criteria – selective admissions, clinical training, and graduation tied to student achievement – including programs affiliated with universities. Thus, programs such as Urban Teacher Center (which partners with Lesley University), the Urban Education Institute (the teacher-training program within the University of Chicago), the Aspire Teacher Residency (which partners with the University of the Pacific), and Relay School of Education (itself now provisionally recognized as a university in New York state), are all examples of university-affiliated teacher training programs that would be eligible for GREAT Act funding. Moreover, the University of Michigan, USC, and the University of the District of Columbia have joined the list of GREAT supporters, and they – like any other university that chooses to participate – may also be eligible for GREAT funding, if their programs comport with the core principles of the legislation.

As Levine rightly notes, “America’s university-based teacher education and school leadership programs now prepare more than 90 percent of the nation’s teachers and school administrators.” To transform at scale, there’s no question that universities will have to participate in the quiet revolution taking place around teacher training. The GREAT Act provides an incentive for them to do so. And far from being a band-aid, “it represents one of the best ideas for recruiting and inducting new teachers into a demanding, complex profession” (Professor Cuban’s words). We think so too.