The New York State Board of Regents is set to vote this week on whether to greatly expand the role of alternative education organizations, such as Teach for America, by allowing them to create their own master's degree programs. This could be a refreshing step in the right direction for American undergraduate education (a rarity!) - if it is done right (another rarity).
According to an article in The New York Times on April 19th, "In New York, teachers can begin working without a master's degree as long as they have had some education courses as undergraduates, but they must earn a professional certification within five years by receiving a master's degree from a teaching school."
This, of course, would drastically change should alternative programs get a seat at the certification table. And potentially, this would be change for the better, if these alternative programs would require the theoretical framework and research required by traditional graduate programs in education. A nice bonus, too, would be for education programs across the country to respond to the increased competition for potential teachers.
This proposal is yet another issue in a long conversation pervading the recent history of teacher education in this country. One of the most common criticisms of formal teacher education, a criticism uttered by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan himself, is that teachers get too much theory and not enough practice out of their preparation before getting to the classroom. I'm sure if you listen closely, you'll even hear students here at Geneseo uttering the same criticisms. From my limited experience with the School of Education, I might say something similar.
But I don't disvalue the theoretical work that we do as prospective teachers. In fact, it is this kind of work that prepares us to think critically about and change for the better the very social institution which we work to perpetuate. Theoretical background is a necessary, though not sufficient, pre-requisite for effective teaching because, as I always say, a teacher's job extends way beyond the classroom.
A teacher must not only understand how to operate on a functional level, but also how the social context of his or her school affects its students, how he or she can effectively promote certain methods of thinking about the world, which teaching methods are most strongly supported by research, and what needs to be done and how he or she can do what needs to be done in order to fix the broken aspects of the education system. This is all that theory stuff.
So go ahead, Regent's Board: allow alternative programs to offer certification and master's degree programs. But make sure you require then to supplement their advantageous practical experience with meaningful theoretical framework.
Oh, and to you traditional teaching colleges: take the hint that there is still concern over the lack of practice your students get in comparison to all the theory they have to study. There's going to be competition for your tuition dollars now, so you better change.
Should this vote pass, and should the alternative programs have the strict requirements that traditional programs have alongside their increased opportunities for practice, then the results will be quite favorable, both intentionally and perhaps indirectly.