Arthur Levine

America’s Failure to Educate Educational Leadership

VTR Date: June 3, 2005

Dr. Arthur Levine discusses teaching America's teachers.


GUEST: Dr. Arthur Levine
VTR: 06/03/2005

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Our subject today is America’s devastating failure to educate our educational leadership.

And my guest today has had the temerity to insist that even at a time when our schools face the most critical possible demand for effective principals and superintendents, the majority of the programs that prepare school leaders range in quality from inadequate to poor. Now that doesn’t reflect the prejudices of an anti-Schools of Education fanatic, believe me.

Rather, it’s the painful summary of Part One of a four-year study of schools of education across the country that provides a quite critical examination of American school leadership programs … offering new insights into the ways they operate, the incentives that drive them, and the perceptions that deans, faculty, alumni, principals themselves and others have of their performance.

Indeed, titled “Educating School Leaders”, this quite negative new report on the many university-based school leadership programs engaged in an appalling “race to the bottom” in which they compete for students by lowering standards and offering ever faster and less demanding degrees … is by Arthur Levine, the innovative President of Columbia University’s prestigious Teachers College, to whom The Open Mind so often turns when Americans need still another realistic, straight-from-the-shoulder “educational fix”.
Dr. Levine doesn’t ever seem to believe in pulling punches. But these are particularly tough ones … which leads me to ask my guest where do we go from here?

LEVINE: First, it’s a pleasure to be with you. There’s a lot we could do to fix what exists right now. One of the big problems is that salaries for teachers are dictated by getting additional degrees and additional credits. But that does inspire a lot of teachers to go take Masters programs in school administration, never, ever intending to go principal. Simply to get an easy Masters degree. And they’re unmotivated students. They want to get out as quickly as possible. All they want is the degree. If …

HEFFNER: You mean all they want is the salary.

LEVINE: All they want is the salary. Absolutely. That’s what I meant. You’re right. (Laughter) And if we could have states make the simple step, or take the simple step of saying, “What we’re going to do, is we’re going to give you raises for getting Masters degrees, but they have to have something to do with what you’re doing.” If you’re a teacher, if you up-date your skills, if you expand your skills, if you take course work in a related field, we’ll be happy to give you a raise.

But it has to be germane. If those requirements were made, we’d lose 50% of students who are in school administration programs now and are driving down quality.

HEFFNER: And what about the rest? What about the other 50%?

LEVINE: For those things we need to respond in a variety of ways. Part of the problem is that university’s treat these programs as cash cows, which means what they’re trying to do is cream off as much money as they can from these programs, and invest them in programs they regard as higher priorities. The result is that they over-admit students, they lower admission standards, they hire part-time faculty instead of full time faculty. If universities funded them adequately, they could reduce the bottom of the pool they’re admitting.

Beyond that, what states need to do, if universities are unwilling to do it, is evaluate these programs and close those that are ineffective. It could mean closing as many as 40% to 50% of the programs. And then we need to re-think what the programs look like.

HEFFNER: Aha. What about that? What should they be?

LEVINE: Well, at the moment, the Master’s degree program in the field really looks like a random collection of courses. It’s all the survey courses that you’d find in education school. And there’s one course in the principal-ship. If you took that course away, people would have no idea whatever, what this program was for, or what they hoped to prepare students to do.

So that if we re-made that program and what it looked like is the kind of program that we have in business schools, a Masters of Educational Administration comparable to a Masters of Business Administration. In which we gave the future principals leadership education, management skills and we taught them about education … that kind of rigorous program, which also included an Internship … would be very powerful. That should be a terminal degree in the field. And students wouldn’t need a doctorate in educational administration to move up the ranks. Instead what they’d do is take a series … certificate program … short courses … to advance skills.

So if I’m a principal, and I decide what I want to be is a Superintendent … I wouldn’t go and get a doctorate, and write a dissertation and learn a whole bunch about research. What I might do is take a short program on the skills and knowledge that are required to move from a single school to a district. What I might do is have an apprenticeship with a real successful Superintendent. And what I might do after that, once I took a job is have a mentor who’d work with me. I can’t image that that wouldn’t be far more effective than taking a doctorate.

HEFFNER: But you know, maybe that puts me into an anti-intellectual Shavian position in which raise the question, wouldn’t it be truer to say that those who can administer …do. And those who can’t … then … how do you fill that out? Is, is administration something that can be taught?

LEVINE: I think so. We’re trying experiments around the country. There’s something called “alternative routes” in which people can come to principal-ships from business, from the military, from other kinds of enterprises, in which they’ve managed.

And the research on it is real unclear in terms of that being an actually better approach preparing principals. In fact, it’s very useful for somebody who’s going to become a principal to know something about education. To know something about kids, to know something about teachers and how one develops teachers. To understand something about curriculum and how you manage and lead all that because every bit of that has to change right now.

HEFFNER: Is it fair to link those concepts … leadership, and then being a superintendent, being a principal?

LEVINE: I think you have to today. Once upon a time what we had was a system in which all we wanted was somebody to come in and manage the school because the school was doing fine. Or manage the district because things were okay.

What’s happened today is everything has changed. We’ve moved from an industrial to an information economy. And what that means is everybody needs to graduate from high school in order to get a job.

What it also means is that the kinds of skills and knowledge one needs to get a job in this environment are higher than they have ever before in history. So that the job of principal becomes getting people through that kind of system at a time in which the states have said, “You know, we’re less interested in the process that you put kids through. All we care about are the outcomes”. You’ve got bring them to this level. You’ve got to achieve state standards in order to people to graduate, at a time in which the demographics are changing profoundly.

So what’s happening right now is that between 40% and 50% of all teachers are going to retire. What’s also critical at this time is we’re seeing the number of children with learning disabilities … just rise dramatically. The number of children who don’t speak English as their first language has risen dramatically. We’re also seeing changes in population … such that with the “white flight” and the “middle class flight”, the inner cities are … have schools that are populated by kids who have done less well in schooling than kids in general.

And what the principal has to do now is come in and go to that school and move it to a new system, create a new curriculum, develop the principles, create an environment in which they’re still a community, change the teaching strategies and adapt to a system of accountability and assessment.

HEFFNER: Possible? Is it possible?

LEVINE: It has to be possible.

HEFFNER: That’s not saying that it is.

LEVINE: Yeah. We’ve seen examples of schools that have succeeded at it. And we also know this … maybe it’s just a truism. There’s no such thing as bad school with a good principal. They can move their schools forward and they’re rather successful at doing so. And the converse is also true. Which is … there’s no such thing as a good school with a bad principal.

HEFFNER: Then let me ask you. When you’ve seen good schools, good principals, good superintendents … what are the qualities of those individuals? What have they done? What do they have in them, about them, that enables them to make those shifts in those institutions for which they’re responsible?

LEVINE: They have a clear sense of direction. They know where they have to take the school. They’ve been very effective at developing teachers. Teachers were also prepared for a different era, for the most part. They were prepared for a time in which we could accept a reasonable drop-out rate. Or an unreasonable drop-out rate in some places.

They were prepared for a time in which process was more important than outcomes. And what has to happen now is … they need to be re-geared for an age of accountability, which high assessment as a requirement. Teacher development is real important.

The other thing they’re very successful at is data-driven decision making. And what that means is … that it sounds like some jargon-y phrase …what it really means is … you get all kinds of results on how well kids are doing. Let’s move the school in directions that the data shows we need to move it.

What they’re also real good at is figuring out how to use the money to get the things they want done. And what they do beyond that is, they really understand kids and what kids need.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting. You sound more optimistic now about the possibilities in this area, than you have in the past. When you’ve been and we’ve had so many interesting discussions … the “leave no child behind” quandary … so many things that I’ve seen Arthur Levine angry because of what he thinks has been inappropriate action. Governmental action.

Now, you, you seem to be saying “We can do it. This is okay.”

LEVINE: No. I’m still angry about a whole bunch of things. I think the reality in our cities is still that they’re underfunded compared to our suburbs. I think the quality of teachers in our cities is much weaker. I think that the children in our cities are forced to deal with curriculum materials that are out of date, often.

That the physical plant that we call schools is inadequate. I think there are very serious problems in the inner city schools. And I think kids in the inner city schools aren’t going to have a real chance until we do for them; recognizing that they’re coming to school less prepared.

What do you need for a kid who’s less prepared? You know we probably ought to start them earlier. Let’s start them with pre-schools, maybe at age 3. And you know, if we expect a kid from a real affluent community to be able to complete a curriculum in 180 days … poor kids ought to have more time. Because they’re coming in with more deficits.

And … so we’ll extend the school year. And we ought to extend the school day. And we ought to do … beyond that is … we ought to get the best teachers that exist in America, which we’re not doing now, and in order to do that … it’s going to take a great deal because why wouldn’t a good, high quality teacher go to the suburbs?

Salaries are higher. Working conditions are better. What it means is that we’re going to attract teachers to inner cities … we have to pay much higher salaries in order to beat out the suburbs. So ultimately, if we’re going to give children a chance, we need to do all those things: pre-schools, longer school years, more time and better teachers.
HEFFNER: Is there any indication though, over the last five years, that there’s been movement, substantial movement, meaningful movement, in those directions?

LEVINE: Yes. One of the most important things that’s happened in recent times has been the fiscal equity decision in New York City. And it’s happening in a lot of states right now.

Which is lawsuits are being pressed against states for funding schools at lower levels in the cities than the suburbs. And the courts are providing that kind of funding ultimately in their decisions to redress the balance.

And in New York City what it means is … New York City is going to get over $5 billion a year for its schools.

HEFFNER: Where is it going to get it from, Arthur Levine?

LEVINE: It’s going to come from the states.

HEFFNER: Will that money be forthcoming, or will there be a continuing dance between the courts saying, “You must do this” and legislature’s not doing it.

LEVINE: I think, of course, there’s no plus for Republican legislatures to do this. There’s no plus for even Democrats coming from suburbs to do this. So that it’s going to be a fight between the courts and the legislatures. But ultimately the courts are going to win. The legislature, the government, the Governor is going to … is going to lose … every option that’s available. They’ll slow it down, but they won’t stop it. And the result is that cities will get that kind of funding.

Now, that’s not a remedy. It would be quite easy to throw that money down a rat hole. And we’ve seen some, some cities do that. But … and Newark’s a prime example … the city that got a fair amount of money and failed to improve its schools.

But what stands out is that if we made the appropriate investments … I’ve been Chairing a City Council Commission in New York City on how to spend this money. And what we’ve asked is that they invest in smaller classes for children in failing schools.

What we’ve asked is that they invest in better teachers at higher salaries to do that. But only if there is strong assessment and rigorous accountability. We’ve asked for after school programs, longer years. What we’re asking for is pre-school programs so all the kinds of things that I’ve talked about, are the things I hope the city will invest in.

HEFFNER: And you think it will?

LEVINE: I can’t be sure, but I think so. It’s logical. The kinds of things I just described to you are … they’re investments, they’re logical kinds of things, they’re not political kinds of things. I suspect there will be political static over it. But ultimately I think these are the kinds of things that will be done because it’s what the research shows works. And in an age of accountability, you need things that work.

HEFFNER: And you talk about it’s being practical. What role does the business community, which needs these better educated … or needs these educated … or needs these literate … let’s lower the, the demand level … is business playing an important role here?

LEVINE: Not in this city.

HEFFNER: How about the country at large?

LEVINE: It varies from city to city and location to location. In this city … the business community actually has the capacity to press the legislature and the Governor for a settlement in this suit. And they haven’t acted upon it.

HEFFNER: You mean they could “produce”, they could have the money produced?

LEVINE: They could, indeed.

HEFFNER: And why not? If it’s as practical a matter as you suggest and as realistic?

LEVINE: I’ve been shocked at the degree to which the business community has not been involved. There were several efforts when I first arrived in New York … which was about a decade ago, of the business community to try to do things in education. And they weren’t wholly successful; I think they don’t want to fail again.

HEFFNER: That’s an interesting, sort of peculiar response … not on your part, but on their part. We’re not going to do anything because we don’t want to fail again.

LEVINE: They adopt. They adopt individual schools. But they haven’t played a major role in policy.

HEFFNER: Again, other communities. Where do they do the right thing?

LEVINE: There have been a few Midwestern communities in which the business community has been the impetus for changing the schools. They’ve worked the Legislature. They’ve worked the City Council, they’ve worked the school boards; they brought together the constituencies that are needed to make things happen. And some of them are early, some of them are later along, but they’ve produced some results. We still haven’t turned around any … ANY … urban school system in America.

HEFFNER: That’s a shocking fact. Because we’ve been talking about this a long, long time.

LEVINE: I’ve … we haven’t been wholly series, and we don’t have to be wholly serious because if one looks at who attends …


LEVINE: inner city schools … for politicians, all they really need to do is rub their hands together and talk about how sad the conditions are. The reality is that parents of children in inner city schools have lower voting rates, they haven’t taken to the streets and said, “I’m angry, I’m not going to take this any more.” And as long as the issue doesn’t get pressed, we don’t need to make the kinds of investments that are necessary to make this better.

Actually the Mayor of New York was incredibly courageous in taking on education as his primary issue. The reason being that it makes far more sense for a candidate to keep school boards and other kinds of mechanisms that keep the candidate from … or the Mayor … from the education system. That means he can run the first time … and say, “Our schools are despicable. That’s why I’m running for Mayor.” And you run the second time saying “Our schools are despicable. And I just can’t get my arms around them.” It’s a far safer posture. Because fixing urban schools is expensive and it’s hard and it’s long.

HEFFNER: Arthur, are we much further behind the eight ball here than other industrial societies are?

LEVINE: I can’t answer your question. I don’t know. I know it’s a larger problem for us only because we’ve made it much more visible and made it much more a center for our activities. I know in Britain that it’s also becoming a center for the Blair government. It has been a center. I don’t know what the numbers are.

HEFFNER: As you know, I’ve just returned from Italy and my wife and I didn’t go an look for answers to that question, but from several people there were such negative things said about the school system, that I thought to myself, “My gosh, maybe we’re not that unique, after all.”

Look we’ve talked about this a lot of times. Is Arthur Levine … more … less … or whatever … hopeful … despairing about the schools. Honestly. No nonsense.

LEVINE: Our suburban schools in this country are real good.


LEVINE: Our urban schools. What I’m hopeful about, or what I think has happened is we’ve done a fair amount of triage and what that means is that we’ve created small schools, we’ve created pockets of excellence, we’ve created quality. We’ve turned around whole systems … absolutely not.

So what I’m taking solace in is the fact that there are places in which you can see real improvement and real differences. We still haven’t made the commitment to make our schools and our cities better. We haven’t put the resources into it. And that’s what it’s ultimately going to take.

HEFFNER: All right. Now thinking about where we began … the question of your massive report on … study … and several reports on school leadership … will Columbia University’s Teachers College of which you’re President, take the first step?

LEVINE: I think we’ve taken the first step. And I define the schools in this study as of three types. There are models. There are strong schools and there are schools that are inadequate or worse. We’re not a model. I found no models in America.

HEFFNER: You found no models in America?

LEVINE: No. The only model I found was in Britain. Second … are we a strong school? Any time the lists come out that rate the top ten schools … we’re invariably on those lists. We’re always on those lists. So we’re strong.

So we don’t fit into the last category, either of “inadequate to poor” … inadequate to failing. What are we going to do over the next little while? What’s interesting is that it had nothing to do with me or my recommendations.

About two years before I released this report , having shared none of it with our Department of Educational Leadership or our program in Educational Leadership … the program began a re-examination of everything it was doing. And they called in … they called in people from executive programs in business schools, they went to the Army War College. The brought in the for-profits who were working in the area. And what they’re currently doing is looking at their program and trying to figure out what it’s going to be.

My recommendation was to eliminate the doctorate. I don’t think our program is going to eliminate the doctorate. I think at the moment the only way the doctorate is going to be eliminated is for states to say, “We’re demanding … demanding of you … is you have the equivalent of the MBA in education.” That will be the requirement. The doctorate won’t be changed until then. It’s an economic problem for any school that tries to do it.

HEFFNER: You’re not opposed to the doctorate per se in education?

LEVINE: No. But I want, I want doctorates for practitioners who are going to be leaders … eliminated.


LEVINE: There’s no reason to have this.

HEFFNER: You want it to be a research …

LEVINE: A research degree.


LEVINE: To prepare our future scholars, who want to study leadership.

HEFFNER: I was at the graduation the other evening at Teachers College and looked at all those new Masters. Do you think they have the same enthusiasm … more enthusiasm now, perhaps … than when you arrived on the scene?

LEVINE: Well, I can’t attribute any of that to me.

HEFFNER: I don’t even mean ….

LEVINE: … but that’s not the reason they come with optimism. If you think about the people who are graduating with Masters’ degrees from a place like Teachers College … they’re real bright people, who have a lot of choices. They knew they weren’t going to make any money in getting a degree in education. The reason they came is that they’re enormously idealistic and they want to make a difference. And that was true ten years ago and that’s true now and it was probably true when school started. It’s a generation of social activists.

HEFFNER: Will they stay that way … in the one minute we have remaining?

LEVINE: I hope so. They sure seem to, although there are a lot of forces that encourage them not to because of pay, families, other issues, but they seem to hang in.

HEFFNER: Well, you and I are still around. You much younger than I am, but …

LEVINE: Oh, please. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: There is something, so much more about this business about teaching.

LEVINE: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: And thank you so much for joining me on The Open Mind once again. And for teaching us all, Arthur Levine.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.