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Q&A: The case for competency-based college education
No Caption - photo by Eric Schulzke
The Woodrow Wilson Foundation turned heads in education circles last month when it announced a partnership with MIT for an education graduate program that will offers degrees to aspiring or current teachers based on their proven competence rather than seat time.

Students could move through the program as fast as they demonstrate key skills. By focusing on demonstrable skills rather than book learning, the Wilson Academy, which will be located in the Boston metropolitan area, could be a radical departure from traditional teacher training, with implications for how we train teachers.

As soon as students master core skills, they'll get their master's degree. It's a radical departure from the "seat time" model, where students are required to complete a given course load, but actual classroom skills play a minor role.

"Most education schools have such low admission standards and are of such poor quality, it would be easier to replace them than repair them," Arthur Levine, formerly president of the Teachers College at Columbia University and now president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, said. "They're old and dated."

The program, a brainchild of Levine, will initially focus on STEM fields, preparing teachers in science, technology and math.

The Woodrow Wilson Academy has $10 million in seed funds committed, with a target of $30 million as a fundraising target.

Patrick Riccards is chief communications and strategy officer for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. This interview with him has been edited for clarity and length.

What are the other key differences in your new program?

For starters, we are entirely competency based. There are a number of institutions that say that they are competency-based. But this is really beyond what any other program is doing. We are completely throwing out the clock and saying that seat time doesnt matter. What matters is for prospective teachers to both demonstrate what they need to know and show how to use it. Some may master things very quickly, while others make take a long time. We will require students to demonstrate mastery. It doesnt come from sitting in classroom for 36 credit hours.

How did the Woodrow Wilson Foundation come to launch a graduate school?

For the last seven or eight years, weve been working with states to help them transform teacher education at the universities. We currently work in five states across 28 universities, working on how we can better prepare teachers, particularly in STEM classrooms and high-needs schools. Work is happening in Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and New Jersey.

In each of the states we have a year-long fellowship program that combines a full curriculum of classroom work with a year-long clinical experience. Our teachers are actually in high-needs classrooms learning from experienced teachers. In the third piece here is a mentoring program, not just for the students during the year of their fellowship program, but continuing with them through their first three years as teacher of record.

Who is this fellowship program aimed at?

They wouldnt necessarily have talked before this. Most of them will have completed a bachelor's degree in one of the STEM fields and then decided they wanted to become a teacher. Others are midcareer changers, and some decide that they want to get a masters degree and become a better teacher.

So you were already essentially running a graduate program, just out in the field, right?

Exactly. So after all the work that weve been doing in the states weve now decided to launch our own graduate school, which we are doing in partnership with MIT. Its really one part grad school, one part research lab. So we like to say that were half West Point, half Bell Labs.

What is your end game on this?

We are not looking to have thousands upon thousands of students in our program every year. We are looking to transform teacher preparation around the country. So when you look at the competencies, the modules, the assessments, all that material will be open source. It will be available free to every education school, every teacher preparation program across the country.

How do you measure competence?

One of the most interesting methods we are working with involves simulations. Over the last few decades every major airline has shifted their training. Instead of teaching the pilot in a plane, they put them in the simulator. You can run all sorts of scenarios and not lose multimillion-dollar planes. A number of organizations are now doing this in education and will be working with MIT on this. You can adjust the simulation for difficulty or to emphasize particular challenges.

Are you talking computer simulation?

Yes, with avatars that have different scenarios, with different scenarios ranging from I forgot my textbook to Im going to have a complete breakdown and destroy your class. Its as close to real life as one can get. The best version of this right now is down at the University of Central Florida. They will have one human behind the screen feeding keystrokes into the avatars to make sure they respond. Syracuse University is also doing this. Advances are coming fast and furious.

Is this movement to professionalize teaching and hone the competencies coming into synergy? There are lots of operations right now working to disrupt and rebuild teacher preparation. Is this ecosystem taking shape, is it becoming coherent and collaborative?

If you look at all the organizations that are looking to do this, each of them is trying to find their niche. For us, its not so important who gets the credit. We think we know how to prepare teachers for the future. The reason we made the announcement we did is that we want to identify the teacher education schools that want to work with us on this, help us work through prototypes and improve it. We want this to be open source and hand it over and anyone who wants to can use it. We want their voices to help us make it better from the start.