By Stephanie Simon
(Reuters) - U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan delivered a scathing critique of teacher training colleges on Wednesday as he unveiled a $5 billion initiative to transform the teaching profession.
Duncan argued that the profession needed to become more selective, offer more consistent training, evaluate teachers' effectiveness more critically and reward the best teachers with salaries on a par with doctors and lawyers.
"Many of our schools of education are mediocre at best. Many teachers are poorly trained and isolated in their classrooms," Duncan told an online town hall meeting with educators.
"No other profession carries a greater burden for securing America's future. And no other profession deserves more respect," said Duncan, who once headed Chicago's public schools.
But his ambitious goals may run into major roadblocks.
President Barack Obama's administration wants states to compete for a share in $5 billion in federal grants to overhaul their teacher training colleges and create new standards to evaluate teachers.
But that fund is subject to congressional approval, and Republicans have already served notice that they intend to fight new spending initiatives. All four Republican candidates seeking to challenge Obama in November's election have called for greatly reducing the federal role in education.
On the state level, it is unclear where legislators will find the resources to raise teachers' salaries or offer sizeable bonuses to the most effective teachers, as Duncan has urged. Many states have cut tens of millions in education funding in recent years as they grapple with enormous budget deficits.
Duncan's rebuke of teacher colleges is also likely to arouse opposition from the institutions themselves. His description of many schools as ineffective rankles teacher educators such as Michael Morehead, dean of New Mexico State University's College of Education.
In recent years, Morehead said teacher training colleges had dramatically boosted their standards. Decades ago, he said, anyone with even a mediocre grade-point average in high school could get into a teacher college, flounder through the courses and still graduate as a teacher.
Now, he said, many schools are more selective in their admissions and require hundreds of hours of apprenticeship, or student teaching, before awarding a diploma. Many states also require teachers to pass one or more licensing exams before taking charge of a classroom.
"It's certainly a misperception" that teacher colleges are failing, Morehead said. "Yet that's what is consistently expressed."
But Tim Knowles, who directs the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute, said teacher education reforms were sorely needed. About half of new teachers who go to work in urban schools leave the profession within five years, and many of them complain they were not well prepared for the job.
Knowles said some new teachers had spent as little as six weeks in apprenticeship before taking over their own classrooms.
Knowles said he hoped the Obama initiative would prod states to rank teacher colleges by how well they prepare their graduates, how long those graduates remain in the profession and how much impact they have on their students, as measured by standardized test scores.
Otherwise, he said, it is hard to tell how effective they were. "Right now, it's a total free-for-all," he said.
The Obama initiative is called RESPECT, an acronym for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching.
The American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers' union, has issued a general statement of support for Obama's education reform policies but has not commented on the details of Duncan's proposal.
(Reporting By Stephanie Simon in Denver; Additional reporting by Ian Simpson; editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Todd Eastham)