One of the ongoing discussions in the battle over reforming American public education is the future of the nation’s university schools of education, which train most of the nation’s new teachers. With their failures to improve the quality of teacher training, unwillingness to tighten up their recruiting of aspiring teachers, inability to adapt to the growing need for teaching to be perceived as a sophisticated and attractive profession for talented collegians, and unwillingness to play their part in stemming the nation’s education crisis, one wonders whether they deserve to continue to exist. As Linda Darling-Hammond has pointed out, ed school training is in the same state as medical school training was before Abraham Flexnor’s groundbreaking efforts in the early 20th century forced their revamp. The emergence of Teach for America and other alternative teacher training programs not tethered to ed schools has also provided new competition to the ed school crowd. And while some reformers — including Arthur McKee of the National Council on Teacher Quality — argue that ed schools still have value, even they declare that ed schools need to change.

In this Best of Dropout Nation, culled from a Three Thoughts column that ran in November 2011, Editor RiShawn Biddle explains why ed schools (along with current approaches to professional development) may be heading to history’s ashbin. Read, consider, and offer your own thoughts.

When it comes to training teachers and improving their skills, this is clear:  The nation spends a lot on it ($7 billion alone on training aspiring teachers); there are a lot of ed schools involved in handling this work (1,200 of them); professional development can be profitable for the players who provide it (including consultants like “culture of poverty” promulgator Ruby Payne, and ed schools); and the results are atrocious. Forget the low quality of instruction in our nation’s schools and a dropout crisis which saps the futures of 1.3 million kids every year: Teachers, administrators and policymakers alike don’t even think the training is of any value.

The critical reason is that teacher training and professional development is garbage in, garbage out and garbage in-between. Former Teachers College President Arthur Levine pointed out in a 2006 study that 54 percent of the nation’s teachers are taught at colleges with low admission requirements. Once aspiring teachers are admitted, they’re not likely to get the training they need to get the job done. As the National Council on Teacher Quality noted in its recent study, just one in five of the 53 ed schools it surveyed in Illinois adequately trained their students in reading instruction, and only five schools had strong, rigorous undergraduate elementary school instruction. Many ed school professors think they don’t have an obligation to actually ensure that teachers have strong subject knowledge competency or skill in instructional methods (much less actually have entrepreneurial drive, strong leadership ability and care for all kids); they would rather focus on theories of learning that involve some vague notions about schools as democracies instead of teaching teachers how to teach. The fact that Jason Kamras’, John Taylor Gattos and Jaime Escalantes emerge from the muck and mire is more a testament to their fortitude than to the ed schools from which they graduated.

Meanwhile the professional development is well, abysmal. Just 132 of 1,200 professional development programs surveyed by the U.S. Department of Education focused on reading, math and science; only nine actually met federal What Works Clearinghouse standards for quality and outcomes. Meanwhile there is little evidence that site-based professional development teams — in which teams of teachers meet to brainstorm and learn from one another — works either. Which makes sense: If America’s teacher corps is largely mediocre, then all you have happening is laggard teachers learning from other laggards. Meanwhile the one area of professional development that doesn’t really get called that — graduate and post-graduate training by ed schools — essentially functions as a way for teachers to take advantage of degree-based pay scales. If the ed school did a poor job of training teachers at the undergrad level, then it won’t do such a hot job in post-grad.

So should we save ed schools or professional development. The organization that is supposed to ensure that teacher training is of high quality, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, declared this week in its report that ed schools must move to a “clinical practice” model that emphasizes mentoring by experienced teachers. As reported by Education Week in its special report on professional development, there are new and novel efforts going on to improve post-graduate teacher training. This is all nice. But it may be too little too late.

For example, the NCATE study suggests that ed schools should work with traditional school districts — especially urban systems — to develop training programs that actually match their needs. Ed schools have called for this for years to no avail. Some have already begun to move on from ed schools, working with outfits such as Urban Teacher Residency United and The New Teacher Project to form their own training programs. Suburban and rural districts, who struggle with the same issues, could begin doing so as well. Just imagine if consortia of districts or even, say, states such as California, Nevada and Arizona teamed up with a Teach For America to do mass-scale teacher training? One could also imagine groups of high-quality teachers developing apprenticeship programs of their own independent of teachers unions, districts and ed schools, taking aspiring teachers under their wing and having them work in classrooms; this throwback to the old guild concept would certainly work better than the high-cost system in place today. Such efforts, along with private-sector run teacher training courses, could be the wave of the future.

Sure, as NCTQ President Kate Walsh points out, ed schools train more than 90 percent of all new teachers. But at this point, there are only a few ed schools — notably Teachers College — that deserve the name.  If the rest were shut down and replaced with alternative certification programs, American public education wouldn’t be any worse for wear. In fact, we may actually get better teachers and better schools. As for the professional development? What is needed is something better than the status quo.