Brown: Disconnect between schools of arts and sciences, education schools is a missed opportunity

By Simon Brown / Columnist

To anyone walking along West 120th Street in Upper Manhattan, the avenue’s nickname, “The Widest Street in the World,” might appear arbitrary. But upon noticing the campus of Columbia University on one side and Columbia Teacher’s College on the other, anybody could understand the superlative.

The wide division between the oldest school of education in the country and the Ivy League university with whom it shares a name is not unique. Schools of education often occupy academic orbits far removed from their universities’ undergraduate and faculty communities. But if colleges want to align their arts and sciences curricula to marketable skills and if schools of education want to increase their prestige and legitimacy, both must collaborate to bridge this gap.

At Pitt, the intersection of Forbes Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard, which divides the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences in the Cathedral of Learning and the School of Education in Posvar Hall, does not feel quite so wide. Unless, of course, you’re waiting for the walk sign to change two minutes before your class on the third floor of the Cathedral begins.

Nonetheless, undergraduates in the School of Arts and Sciences would do well to avail themselves of the educational opportunities across the avenue, and both institutions stand to improve through this collaboration.

In order to accomplish this, however, universities must challenge assumptions that run decades deep.

The idea of classes, curricula and research designed specifically for prospective educators did not gain popularity until the latter half of the 19th century, when established universities sought to expand their scope by training teachers for the new public education bureaucracy. By the early 20th century, schools of education had matured from basic teacher-credentialing institutions to the contemporary engines of the new “science of education” — supporting psychological research and granting advanced graduate degrees.

For the past century, these schools have been the gatekeepers to the educational profession — preparing not only classroom teachers, but also administrators and analysts. What is more, they house scholars working in every corner of the field — from cognitive psychologists to historians and philosophers of education. Pitt’s School of Education today awards 50 degrees through 35 distinct programs.

Unfortunately, some of these schools have not been able to leave behind their humble origins as teacher-training schools, and the exciting research they conduct and the interdisciplinary classes they facilitate all occur behind a veil hidden from curious undergraduates. Those undergraduates who don’t think they have an interest in entering education — or, more likely, don’t know they have an interest in education — feel they have nothing to gain from lifting the veil.

To some, such an interaction might seem unnecessary and fruitless given the structure of each institution. 

Among regional schools of education, Pitt differs in its primarily graduate-level approach to teacher-training and other educational fields. Its teacher-certification program consists of a five-year progression, through which students gain a B.S., in-class experience and a master’s degree in education.

Though the lack of a four-year undergraduate degree in education distinguishes Pitt from most education schools, this structure is much more common among national research universities, according to Maggie Sikora, the Director of Admissions and Enrollment at the School of Education.

Fortunately for undergraduates, such a structure creates greater space for a curious exploration of educational research. Rather than pigeonholing students into undergraduate education tracks by the time they arrive on campus, this allows students to complete full degrees in the liberal arts and sciences and then progress into the K-12 classroom.

What is more, this structure also ensures that prospective teachers master their content-areas prior to their pedagogical experience — something all too uncommon in American classrooms today. As of 2011, 29 percent of teachers held a bachelor’s degree in education as their highest credential, as opposed to 15 percent with a bachelor’s degree in a non-education field.

This trend has engendered considerable public criticism of mainstream teacher education in the form of reports and articles decrying a route to the classroom that circumvents the content. In addition, new alternatives to education-school credentialing — such as the Teach for America program, which directly recruits recent undergraduates — have gained popularity and public attention.

The accuracy or inaccuracy of these criticisms and their alternatives aside, schools of education are pressed to regain the respect — and trust — of the American public. On the other side of the avenue, undergraduate colleges are at pains to demonstrate the financial feasibility and practical application of arts and sciences degrees to a public less inclined to apply.

Pitt’s emphasis on mastering subject matteras a prerequisite for teacher training provides an example for other schools of education to follow, and students and administrators in the College of Arts and Sciences ought to take note of the opportunities. 

If undergraduate departments in the School of Arts and Sciences would begin granting credit for coursework in relevant classes in the School of Education, that would go far to introduce students to an unfamiliar field and, possibly, a career path. I see no reason why history students could not receive departmental credit for enrolling in “History of Education” in the School of Education, or philosophy students in “Contemporary Philosophy of Education.”

With these policies in place, administrators can finally disprove the old adage. Those who can do will teach, and those who can teach will do — and not just make do.  

Write Simon [email protected].