Commentary by Jonathan Zimmerman for the Los Angeles Times
Let's suppose you have spent your career as a professor at an American education school, training future teachers. Then suppose that your state decided that teachers could get certified without attending an education school at all.
That's called "alternative certification," and most of my school of education colleagues are outraged by it.
I take a different view. These new routes into teaching could transform the profession, by attracting the type of student that has eluded education schools for far too long. We should extend an olive branch to our competitors, instead of circling the wagons against them.
The biggest challenger at the moment is Teach for America (TFA), which recruits graduating seniors, mostly from elite colleges, and places them as teachers in public schools following a five-week training course. Last year, a whopping 11 percent of all Ivy League seniors applied to TFA. It was the No. 1 employer at several other top colleges, including Georgetown and the University of Chicago.
And last month, the New York State Board of Regents voted to let groups like TFA create their own master's degree programs. Until now, in states that require teachers to obtain master's degrees in education, TFA recruits have had to study for the degree at night to become fully certified. But under the new plan, teachers will be able to join the profession without ever setting foot in a school of education.
Other states are sure to follow, spurred in part by the Obama administration. In its recent Race to the Top competition, the federal Department of Education awarded points to states that provide "high-quality pathways for aspiring teachers and principals," including "allowing alternative routes to certification."
So get ready for an explosion of new programs to certify teachers, who will increasingly bypass schools of education. And get ready for another round of breast-beating at American ed schools about how we are being disrespected.
But do we deserve respect? Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted in a speech last fall that most education schools are doing a "mediocre job" of preparing teachers. And he was being kind. Of the 1,300 institutions awarding graduate degrees for teaching, Harvard's director of teacher education told a 2009 conference, only about 100 prepared students for the classroom. The rest, she added, "could be shut down tomorrow."
But here's the problem: Alternative certification programs aren't doing any better. Most of my former students who have gone on to teach with TFA describe their five-week "boot camp" training as utterly inadequate. Ditto for the evening classes at ed schools in the states that require them.
Indeed, many TFAers regard such classes as a joke, as journalist Donna Foote has observed. Most of the training was not "applicable to life in the classroom," Foote reported in her book, "Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches With Teach for America." As Foote put it: "They saw grad school as just another drain on their time and energy, and put it at the bottom of their list of priorities."
So here's a modest proposal. Instead of simply condemning the alternative-route programs — or trying to compensate for their deficiencies with tack-on evening courses — why don't ed schools offer recruits a full year of training before they start on the job?
That would require a group like TFA to take applications from college juniors, not seniors. And these recruits would commit to taking a nine-month education course, meeting for at least three hours per week.
Then they could spend the summer after graduation as full-fledged student teachers. Instead of a five-week boot camp, they'd get a complete, supervised apprenticeship under an experienced professional.
Why would this training succeed when so many other education school programs have failed? First of all, it would be eminently practical. Too many current education students graduate with a new jargon — "activity-based learning," "multiple intelligences" and so on — but without the actual skills they need to teach.
But if a TFA-type organization partnered with an education school, it could demand curriculum changes, requiring us to impart hands-on methods instead of arid cliches. Schools of education tend to change slowly, but this is one change they should quickly embrace, because the quality of the students would be so much higher than our norm.
Sadly, that norm keeps getting lower. Over the past 40 years, as my colleague Sean Corcoran has shown, a declining fraction of the most talented college students have chosen to enter teaching. One of the most exciting things about TFA is it has managed to recruit top students into teaching.
Education schools should create an opportunity to help train America's best and brightest students, with a full year to transform them into effective teachers. If we were to succeed, we'd have demonstrated once and for all the lasting value of American education schools. And if we were to fail, we'd earn every bit of the disparagement that came our way.
I'm not sure how we would fare, to be honest. But we owe it to ourselves — and to kids across America — to find out.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory." He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.