The Future of America's Schools of Education: Repair or Replace?

Nearly a decade ago, as president of Teachers College at Columbia University, I led a national study of the state of education schools in America, which produced reports on the education of school teachers, school leaders, and education researchers. While strong programs were identified in each area, the reports were critical of current practices regarding program quality and admission standards.

I came to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation believing it is easy to throw bricks; the real challenge is to improve policy and practice. The situation of America's education schools is not unique. The United States is making a transition from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information one. All of our social institutions -- government, media, healthcare, education, and the rest -- were created for the former. They work less well today than they once did and appear to be broken. They need to be refitted for this new era.

There are two ways to accomplish this -- repairing/reforming the existing institutions or replacing them, creating new versions that fit the times. Both are essential today for education schools. It is a mistake to do one and not the other. Here's why.

The Case for Repair

I can't count the number of times I have heard critics say we just need to blow up our education schools. Beyond disliking the expression, it would be a terrible error. More than 90 percent of school teachers and leaders are currently prepared by education schools. We need these schools to continue to prepare them if we are to have teachers in our classrooms and principals to lead our schools.The immediate need is to repair them, strengthen their programs, and raise admission and graduation standards while closing the poorest of the breed and investing in the best.

For the past eight years, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has focused its efforts on repairing schools of education. Through our Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowships, we partner with 28 universities in five states - Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio - to create model STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) graduate teacher education programs designed to meet the needs of the 21st century. Through a state-based strategy, we recruited high-ability students with STEM undergraduate degrees to enroll in those programs and become career STEM teachers in high-need urban and rural schools.

The Woodrow Wilson Foundation created a similar Fellowship for school and district leaders, now partnering with business schools and education schools in three states - Indiana, New Mexico, and Wisconsin - to provide an MBA program for aspiring education leaders. This clinically intensive MBA not only provides leaders with the skills and knowledge needed to be both school managers and instructional leaders, but it is done in collaboration with local school districts to ensure a leadership pipeline that meets their real-time needs

These efforts have made several things clear. First, education schools can create excellent preparation programs for both teachers and leaders. Second, universities can attract high-quality students for teaching careers. Third, with strong preparation including relevant, rigorous, and discipline-based academic programs; intensive clinical experience; and continuing mentorship, these high-quality students will choose to stay in the education profession. Third-party assessment finds a more than 80 percent retention rate at high need schools after three years on the job by teachers and strong comparative achievement results by their students.

The case for replacement

In the long run, deeper, more fundamental change in education schools is necessary. These institutions have become outdated. Schooling in America, education schools included, is a product of the industrial era. They are time based, measuring student progress in terms of years of study, courses taken, and credits accumulated. The currency is seat time, how long students are taught. It is assumed all people can learn the same things in the same period of time. Time and process are fixed; outcomes are variable.

In information economies, the scales are reversed. The focus in education shifts from common processes to common outcomes, from what students have been taught to what they have learned and their ability to demonstrate that knowledge. This is the model of education that will supplant and replace the current system.

With the goal of creating that model, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation - in collaboration with MIT - is creating the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning Sciences. The WW Academy will offer graduate programs in teacher education and school leadership, while serving as a lab to study what works in those fields. The aspiration is to combine the attributes of West Point, in preparing outstanding, cutting edge, career professionals, and Bell Labs in conducting the research necessary to advance the frontiers of education. MIT will serve as the incubator for the WW Academy, and the WW Academy will serve as a lab for MIT. The Academy, which will be competency- or outcome-based with a blended curriculum rooted in learning sciences, will begin with teacher education in the stem disciplines. The first class will enroll in 2017.

The WW Academy is intended to serve as a resource for the nation's schools of education, a show room of sorts where developments in cognitive science, educational technology, assessment, competency-based education, among others are studied and can be observed. Because all aspects of the WW Academy are open source, they can be adopted in whole or part by education schools.

The inescapable conclusion is that education schools need to be modernized for a global, digital information economy. We cannot choose between repairing the existing institutions, most often suggested by reformers in the education school community, and replacement, which is proposed by its harshest critics. We must do both. We must reform and improve current programs. And at the same time we must reinvent them, creating the institutions we need for the future. Only if we do both, can we have the teachers and leaders we need to staff our schools today and the education at scale we need to prepare a new generation of teachers and leaders for tomorrow's emerging schools.