Private Teacher Training on the Rise

Published September 1, 2001

Teacher training and certification are becoming a bit less of a state monopoly with the advent of teacher preparation in the private sector. Although these ventures by private education providers are generally not intended to challenge conventional schools of education, that could be the result over time.

Currently, the major private-sector providers of teacher training are Edison Schools, Inc., Sylvan Learning Systems, the University of Phoenix, and the Core Knowledge Foundation. Each is tackling the issue of teacher training from a different strategic perspective.

Edison Schools, Inc.

Edison Schools, Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit manager of public schools, is going into teacher training in a big way. It has launched an Edison Teacher Colleges division for this purpose; at its helm is Dr. Deborah McGriff, a former Detroit school superintendent who has led Edison’s development of charter schools across the country.

Within seven years, Edison expects to be training would-be teachers on campuses in 20 cities. These will be communities that have clusters of Edison Schools offering K-12 education.

Asked by School Reform News why Edison is embarking on such an ambitious plan, McGriff replied, “To ensure that we have the quantity of teachers and administrators needed to meet our growth targets and the talent needed to meet our academic performance targets.”

Asked if there was a perception that existing schools of education are not turning out enough well-prepared teachers, she responded, diplomatically, “There is a national teacher shortage and teachers do not feel well prepared.” McGriff added that “our [Edison’s] curriculum will integrate theory and practice. Each course will have a clinical component. Our graduates will close the achievement gap.”

Edison currently plans to offer only graduate degrees in education. Those entering the program, which will last for a summer and two semesters, will have to establish mastery of the subject matter they will teach. Graduates will be guaranteed jobs in Edison Schools, although they would be free to go elsewhere.

In addition to offering instruction in traditional classrooms, Edison Teacher Colleges plan to provide opportunities online.

Sylvan Learning Systems

Another significant development has been the quiet entry into teacher training of Sylvan Learning Systems, a nationwide company that specializes in private academic tutoring. Over the past year, Sylvan hasn’t evinced interest in setting up its own teacher colleges, but instead has been contracting with individual school districts to provide what they need to bring their uncertified teachers up to acceptable standards.

Seeking to fill a critical need for well-qualified K-12 teachers, Sylvan began its first teacher training programs in the fall of 2000. Much of the coursework is offered online. In addition, Sylvan has assigned “instructional managers”–mainly retired educators–to groups of 25 teachers in training.

In Texas, Sylvan has worked with school districts that produce one-fourth of the state’s new teachers through their own licensure systems. The company focuses on helping teachers working on emergency certificates and long-term substitute teachers.

Recently, Sylvan’s clout as a trainer of teachers took a quantum leap forward with its investment of $32.8 million to acquire 41 percent ownership of Walden University, an institution based in Bonita Springs, Florida and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Walden has pioneered in distance and online learning for working adults who seek graduate degrees.

Sylvan brings to relatively small Walden the name recognition it earned from helping lagging K-12 students catch up, and Walden brings to the partnership its full accreditation from the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which opens e-students’ access to federal financial aid.

Market analysts said Walden’s online expertise combined with Sylvan’s credible move to fill a huge void in teacher preparation makes for extraordinary growth potential.

“Walden clearly has a good model,” noted Adam Newman, senior analyst with “It’s accredited. It has the infrastructure in place. It understands the distance-learning postsecondary market. The merger could end up being more about how to use Walden to grow Sylvan.”

Other Partners

A third partner is another Sylvan investment, Canter and Associates, which already had developed with Walden a new specialization in elementary reading and literacy as part of the university’s master’s degree program in education.

Yet another partnership Sylvan has entered–this one with Teachers College, Columbia University–underscores the company’s desire to work within the education establishment, not to challenge it head-on. Teachers College is the granddaddy of U.S. schools of education, and the single most influential force driving ed-schools to train would-be teachers in child-centered, rather than teacher-directed, teaching methods. According to a June 2000 announcement, Sylvan will work with Teachers College in preparing teachers to win certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS).

The release touted NBPTS, a creation of the Carnegie Corporation that is now federally funded, as “highly selective” and “rigorous.” Critics strongly disagree. The National Council on Teacher Quality has pointed out that NBPTS–by policy–ignores mistakes in spelling, punctuation, and grammar made by candidates (even English teachers) in their bids for national certification. In addition, NBPTS’ examiners give no weight to whether candidates’ students have reached acceptable levels of academic achievement. Instead NBPTS relies heavily on portfolios, including classroom videos, that candidates prepare.

Teachers College will provide course content and instruction for the Internet-delivered NBPTS prep course. Sylvan will concentrate on supporting on-site mentors and working with local school districts.

University of Phoenix

The 75,000-student University of Phoenix, the nation’s largest for-profit university and another pioneer in online instruction, is also bidding to make a large impact on teacher training. Its College of Education, like Sylvan, is seeking to cooperate with the teacher-education establishment.

The University’s campuses in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico recently were accepted into one of the gatekeepers of teaching, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), after that organization changed its bylaws to permit for-profit memberships. Jane McAuliffe, dean of Phoenix’s College of Education, said the college also plans to seek accreditation from the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and has staff in NCATE training this summer.

That has caused a degree of consternation in the ed-school community, where some pedagogues deem “profit” a dirty word. But Allen Glenn, dean emeritus of the University of Washington’s College of Education and chairman of an AACTE task force that studied private teacher training, sees potential benefits in diversification.

“When people have choices, competition and service become instrumental,” Dr. Glenn commented. “Colleges of education are now just one choice among many for educators. Competition will only escalate.”

The University currently has 1,100 students in its post-baccalaureate teacher education program, which as of September 1 will be phased out in favor of a MAEd degree program with a teacher-licensure program attached to it, according to McAuliffe. There are currently 2,700 students in the MAEd programs, which are offered in special education, e-education, curriculum and instruction, curriculum and technology, administration and supervision, and educational counseling.

“Sometimes people are alarmed at our high enrollment numbers,” commented McAuliffe. “In reality, our local campuses are relatively small with respect to enrollment. We have many campuses or learning centers in a state because we locate ourselves where we are needed. We design programs to meet the local needs and can do so in a fairly quick fashion because we involve the local educators as faculty and curriculum developers.”

She added, “Many people believe that we are strictly an online university. This is not so.”

Core Knowledge Foundation

Meanwhile, nonprofit providers like the Core Knowledge schools also are involved in training their own teachers. E.D. Hirsch Jr., the CK founder and critic of ed-schools’ student-centered approaches, reports the Core Knowledge Foundation is preparing grade-by-grade handbooks describing what teachers need to know at each level, as well as subject-matter syllabi for pre-service and in-service courses.

As private providers become an increasingly strong force in training teachers, it is logical to assume the field will open to divergent educational philosophies and operate less like an entrenched monopoly.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].