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The roots of change in teacher preparation

Benjamin Riley

Category: Commentary

Recently, a reporter from a national magazine asked a surprising question regarding something she read on the Deans for Impact website.

“Do you really want to transform educator preparation within a generation?” she asked.

I nervously asked her to clarify – was our goal too ambitious?

“Not at all,” she replied. “It’s just that so many people promise to change the world overnight, it’s refreshing to see some honesty about how long it will take!”

This exchange embodies a delicate challenge faced by social entrepreneurs. On the one hand, they must create a fierce sense of urgency around their mission, and inspire immediate action. But they must also be realistic about the time meaningful change will take, knowing that true social transformations are measured in decades, not years. Finding the right balance between ambition and patience can be challenging.

That’s why at Deans for Impact we describe our mission – to transform the U.S. educator-preparation system to be the best in the world – in generational terms. Our members are acting now to improve their programs, to change existing policies, and to demonstrate our collective impact. But it will take years for these changes to take root and to spread to the broader field.

This transformation is possible. We know because we have dramatically improved other professional education systems in this country. Consider business schools.

You may be surprised to learn, as I was, that business schools in this country were once thought of as the “slums of the educational community.”[1] Yet between 1945 and 1970, a mini-revolution took place that transformed their role in higher education, our economy, and indeed, our entire society. How did this happen? There was no single agent of reform. Instead, a variety of individuals and organizations served as tributaries that combined to form a river of change:

  • New vision: A coalition of actors including deans, faculties, and foundations cohered around a new vision for business education. This vision suggested that management training should require “more rigor, including the greater use of mathematical models and research findings of psychology and economics, and the substitution of formal analyses of rules of thumb. They proclaimed the importance of problem framing more than problem solving [and] they believed there was a larger purpose of business education in contributing to society.”
  • New models: Concrete examples of this new vision were fostered in programs such as the Graduate School of Industrial Administration at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, which quickly evolved into one of the most intellectually vibrant management programs in the country. Similarly, the RAND Corporation showcased how to apply scientific analyses to social and economic problem solving, with an emphasis on organizational decision-making. And, importantly, both GSIA and RAND spawned a cadre of leaders who helped spread this vision in other institutions.
  • Key supporters: The Ford Foundation played a major role in building the coalition that would drive the transformation, and supporting the new models at GSIA and other business schools. The Sloan Foundation and Carnegie Foundation also provided important support and resources.

I see clear parallels between the changes to business schools in the post-WWII era and the efforts now underway to improve our nation’s schools of education. There is an emergent vision of programs that prepare future teachers with greater rigor and with deeper understanding of the impact that their graduates have in the classroom. New models, both inside and outside the academy, are making this vision a reality. And key philanthropic supporters are investing to support this vision and these new models.

We thus have every reason to be optimistic. We transformed business schools, we can transform ed schools.

But now for a cautionary note. This new effort will not succeed without sustained support. Because for every new model looking to strengthen the rigor of teacher preparation, there is another program that wants to make preparing teachers fast, cheap, and easy. Indeed, some states are adopting policies that eliminate the need for any professional preparation at all.

So we face a choice: Will we stay the course in support of our vision, or abandon our efforts before change can take root? I am confident the forces for good can prevail if we continue to work together in pursuit of our shared goal of ensuring every student has a well-prepared teacher.

Let’s learn from our history – and this time, try to repeat it.

[1] This statement is taken from a 1962 report by the Ford Foundation and cited in The Roots, Rituals and Rhetorics of Change: North American Business Schools After the Second World War by Mie Augier and James March. I lean heavily on their book for my understanding of the history of business education, including the quote regarding the “new vision.”