American society has many islands of excellenceand many islands of mediocrity. Some of them can be found on the same turf, the campuses of our hundreds of colleges and universities. Among the islands of excellence are the mathematics and physical and biological science departmentsthe best in the world. Among the islands of mediocrity, or worse, are the schools of education, the institutions through which most of our public school teachers go.
Don't just take my word for it. Take the word of Arthur Levine, dean of Columbia University's Teachers College since 1994 (he's retiring next July), and of Al Sanoff, a former colleague at U.S. News & World Report, who is now the project manager of Teachers College's Study of Schools of Education Project [PDF]. Here's an article that describes the gist of Levine's first report, on the preparation of principals and administrators, issued last March. Money quotes:
"Arthur Levine is president of Teachers College at Columbia University and author of the report. He says graduate education programs suffer from irrelevant and incoherent curriculum, low admissions requirements and academic standards, weak faculty, and little clinical instruction. In fact, Levine adds, many programs are doing little more than dishing out higher degrees to teachers who are trying to qualify for salary increases.
"According to Al Sanoff, the study's project manager, even at elite universities across the U.S., colleges of education need to improve significantly. While he and the other researchers were able to identify some strong graduate education programs around the country, he notes, none that they found in America could be described as exemplary."
"None that they found in America could be described as exemplary." That's dynamite. I haven't gone through the full report yet, but I plan to do so. I have long suspected that education schools do more harm than good, and I have been fortified in my suspicions by reading Rita Kramer's Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America's Teachers, E. D. Hirsch Jr.'s The Schools We Need: And Why We Don't Have Them, and Diane Ravitch's Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform. When I have asked teachers of my acquaintance what they gained from education school courses, the most positive response I've gotten was, "It wasn't a total waste of time." But all this came from people outside the education school establishment. Arthur Levine is at the center of this establishment. Teachers College is ranked number four on U.S. News's survey of graduate schools of education, behind only Harvard, UCLA, and Stanford.
Do we need education schools at all? That is a question I've been asking for some years, and I'm going to look at the Teachers College reports with that in mind. The 1910 Flexner Commission, sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, called for closing most American medical schools and for organizing the rest along the lines of rigorous scientific principles. Over the following decade or so, its writer Abraham Flexner, financed generously by John D. Rockefeller, put its recommendations into practice, and American medical schools are clearly the best in the world. (See pages 491-93 of Ron Chernow's splendid Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. for a brief account.) Are Arthur Levine and Al Sanoff laying the groundwork for a similar restructuring of our schools of education?