A Better Way? Funders Get Behind a New Academy to Train K-12 Educators

Alternative preparation programs for K-12 educators have risen in popularity over the years and attracted millions of dollars in support from funders such as Gates, Walton, and Broad. Teach For America recruits staff for the classrooms of traditional public schools and charter campuses across the country. Meanwhile, graduates of the Broad Academy are at the helm of some of the country’s largest school systems.

Despite their popularity, however, these programs also have attracted their share of criticism. Critics of Teach For America argue that its teachers receive too little training before being dropped into classrooms — often in some of the most challenging settings, such as troubled urban schools and poor rural campuses. Opponents of the Broad Academy’s approach to training school leaders contend the program overemphasizes “disruptive” reform methods for their own sake. Many Broad-trained superintendents use corporate-style management techniques to weaken teachers’ job protections, limit parental input, and introduce reforms that have no track record of success.

On the other hand, mainstream teacher preparation programs continue to attract fire for poor results. A 2014 report by the National Council on Teacher Quality evaluated hundreds of such program and gave low rankings to the vast majority of them. 

So what's the best way to train good educators? 

The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation thinks it has some answers and is entering the world of K-12 educator preparation. The funder recently announced plans to open the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning. The new academy hopes to impact teacher preparation and school leadership nationwide, offering competency-based master's degree programs in teaching and school leadership. Rather than a traditional sequence of coursework, as in most graduate schools, students at the Woodrow Wilson Academy will complete a customized path of education and training, then be assessed to determine their readiness for the classroom.

But that's not all. The academy also plans to serve as a laboratory for studying the best practices for preparing K-12 educators. Operating in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Wilson Foundation hopes this new academy will be the K-12 equivalent of Bell Labs. The Wilson Foundation has put $2 million toward the new academy, but other funders have stepped up as well. Supporters of the Woodrow Wilson Academy include the Gates, Amgen and Simons foundations, as well as Carnegie Corporation. 

The Wilson Foundation is best known for fostering the work of present and future generations of scholars through its research and dissertation fellowships, and similar programs. However, the funder is also involved in K-12 teacher preparation through its Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowships, which strives to recruit outstanding high school teachers in the STEM disciplines. The Woodrow Wilson Academy expands the foundation's K-12 involvement, creating what it hopes will be a new pipeline for elementary and secondary educators and school leaders. The funder also plans for the academy to be accredited, something that cannot be said of other alternative preparation programs.

With nearly one in five new teachers trained through some means other than a traditional university teacher preparation program, alternative paths to becoming a teacher are not going away. We share some of the concerns that critics have leveled at organizations such as TFA and the Broad Academy. Many TFA recruits do not remain in the classroom beyond their initial commitment, and Broad's training seems overly focused on the funder's vision for educational reform rather than what really works in K-12 classrooms. Only time will tell what kind of impact the Woodrow Wilson Academy will have on educator preparation, but we applaud the development.