The Best Teachers in the World: Why we don’t have them and how we could get them.
“My manicurist requires a license to do my nails, but our nation isn’t sure we should license teachers.” Camilla Benbow, Peabody College
Camilla Benbow is the dean of the top-ranked school of education in the United States, Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Under her leadership, which began in 1999, Peabody has risen in stature—passing Harvard, Stanford, and other elite institutions—to reach the top spot in the U.S. News & World Report rating system, which it has occupied since 2009. Peabody is the only school of education in an elite national university that trains undergraduates to become licensed K-12 teachers.
Because Vanderbilt is a very selective institution overall (ranked in the top twenty of national universities), and because the brightest high school students in the United States have few choices if they wish to become teachers upon graduation from a four-year institution, Peabody enrolls extremely high-achieving students. Their average SAT combined math and critical reading score in 2011 was 1438.3
Benbow and Peabody have been doing precisely what many experts have argued in recent years must be done if U.S. schools are to produce students who can achieve with the very best in the world. They are attracting the top students from America’s high schools to become teachers. They are putting them through a clinical model of preparation requiring 800 hours of school-based experience, in addition to the rigorous academic requirements of a Vanderbilt bachelor’s degree. It is well documented that high-achieving nations such as Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, among others, have selective teacher education programs that channel top-performing high school graduates into teacher preparation that balances demanding academic instruction with pedagogical training in schools.
But Benbow and Peabody are also part of an enterprise under siege. Schools of education have been the subject of withering criticism going back to the 1980s, when the United States ﬁrst became alarmed about student achievement. This criticism has been intensifying in the last decade. In 2006, Arthur Levine, then president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, led a comprehensive study of U.S. schools of education that documented their failings in excruciating detail.
As a group, schools of education are non-selective. Their students post SAT scores at or below the average of all college graduates. Education school faculty members are weak in research and are dated in practical experience. The vast majority of U.S. teachers are produced in lower quality colleges and universities. The list goes on. In the last year, the National Council on Teacher Quality has begun publishing its ﬁndings on the attributes of teacher education programs, beginning with student teaching. The results of exhaustive research show teacher education programs failing to meet literally all standards—as Levine concluded ﬁve years before.