Disputed Review Finds Disparities in Teacher Prep

Stephen Sawchuk | Education Week

Only a small number of teacher education programs nationally are designed so that new teachers are adequately prepared, concludes a long-awaited and deeply contested independent review.

Released today by the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality and U.S. News and World Reportthe projectgrades programs on up to 18 standards on a scale of zero to four stars. Just four programs, all in secondary teacher preparation, earned a four-star overall rating—Furman University, in South Carolina; Lipscomb and Vanderbilt universities, in Tennessee; and Ohio State University. Earning at least three stars were 104 programs.

About 160 programs were deemed so weak that they were put on a “consumer alert” list by the council.

Institutions received their ratings yesterday. Many schools are expected to contest the findings, and the NCTQ says it will make those documents and its own responses available to the public on its website.

Months before the release, though, education scholars had criticized the project’s standards and methodology, which rely heavily on document review.

“It’s like doing restaurant reviews by looking at the menu rather than eating there,” said Catherine Cornbleth, a professor emeritus of education at the University at Buffalo, which received no stars for its graduate elementary program and two for its secondary program. “Research-wise, [the project] flunks. Politically, it’s probably a B-plus.”

Debates about whether the ratings truly reflect good or bad teacher preparation are likely to dwell. But the project does lend credence to the notion that programs vary significantly in what they expect aspiring teachers to know and demonstrate, even within the same institution, observers said.

“I think it’s a better statement about the state of the field than it is about any one institution,” said Arthur E. Levine, the author of a critical 2006 report on teacher preparation, and now the president of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation. “We don’t agree on how we train teachers. And I don’t know any other profession that behaves this way.”

Rating Results

The massive review took more than two years to finalize and was supported by dozens of funders, including the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. (Education Week also receives funding from the Carnegie Corporation for coverage of industry and innovation.)

It is based on an analysis of syllabuses, student-teaching manuals, course textbooks, and other documents. Each institution’s programs—elementary, secondary, undergraduate, and graduate—were rated on more than a dozen standards crafted by the council, many of which are themselves the subject of vigorous debate.

Research, in general, links broad features such as student-teaching and content knowledge to teachers’ classroom success, but there is less to connect specific coursework or practices to the production of effective teachers. The council eschewed many existing sets of standards as too vague to use as a basis for gauging program design, earning rebukes from the field.

The release includes the group’s scoring guides and several documents about the technical aspects of the report.

Resistance from the field nevertheless affected the scope of the project. Of the more than 2,400 programs the council sought to examine, it was able to issue an overall rating to only 1,200, located at 608 institutions in all. (Scores on some of the standards are available for programs at another 522 education schools, but the number of programs rated on each standard varies.) Special education programs in a subset of schools were also examined.

Many programs cooperated with the project only after receiving open-records requests. In particular, NCTQ officials said, private colleges are underrepresented in the ratings because their documents generally do not fall under states’ open-records statutes. (Nationwide, there are about 1,450 institutions that prepare teachers.)

Among the report’s findings:

• Programs that earned high marks, such as Dallas Baptist University, which received two three-star ratings, often are not located at those institutions with the most prestigious doctoral programs.

• Only about a quarter of programs in the sample admitted a sufficiently academically strong group of candidates. Pennsylvania and Washington state’s undergraduate programs were recognized because most of them had strong selection criteria.

• Just 14 institutions had more than one strong program, and only one, Hunter College in New York City, had three.

• Not a single elementary program, graduate or undergraduate, got a four-star rating. Those programs were on the whole deemed weaker than secondary programs, largely because they do not ensure candidates have sufficient content knowledge.

• Though teachers routinely cite student-teaching as the keystone of their preparation, performance on that standard fell short; candidates, the organization said, are not routinely placed with the best teachers or observed frequently enough by faculty.

• Graduate-level programs did a much poorer job of preparing elementary teachers than did undergraduate programs.

• While 81 percent of programs conduct surveys of their graduates, far fewer collect information on graduates’ classroom effectiveness, in part because most states do not yet provide that information.

In all, said NCTQ President Kate Walsh, “there is a clear disconnect between what higher ed. feels it should be doing in terms of teacher preparation and what public school educators need.”

The review does not address alternative-certification programs.

Programs had to score relatively high across multiple standards to earn high ratings, leading to instances in which a program recognized by the council for best practices on one discrete standard had a mediocre or low overall score.

For example, Arizona State University was recognized for the care with which itsupervises student-teaching, but garnered only two stars overall for its elementary teacher preparation. For both its graduate and undergraduate programs, California State University’s Domiguez Hills campus earned four stars for early reading, helping struggling readers, and reaching English-language learners. But with low scores in other areas, its programs were ultimately deemed to be weak.

Deep Divisions

The report comes during a flurry of policymaking on teacher preparation, including pending federal regulations and a newly finalized set of program accreditation standards. But none of the efforts has generated the fever pitch of the NCTQ project.

Almost since the day of its January 2011 announcement, education faculty have excoriated the project’s methodology, leading to a protracted war of words between the NCTQ and college administrators as the project proceeded.

In a handful of states, the NCTQ took legal action after faculty members at public institutions claimed that syllabuses were proprietary and exempt from disclosure under open-records laws. A court ruling, now under appeal, demanded that Minnesota colleges release their documents. The NCTQ also reached a settlement with Wisconsin institutions, but is scheduled to go to trial this week over the records in Missouri.

The NCTQ also tapped college students to help it collect documents when institutions wouldn’t willingly turn them over.

The 800-member American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, meanwhile,discouraged its institutions from participating. In communiques to members, the Washington-based organization deemed the review an “outrage,” a “Swiss cheese-style project,” and “fundamentally flawed.”

The group couldn’t comment for this article at press time because it had not seen a full copy of the report. It was, however, preparing an “institutional response kit” for its members.

Among other things, critics played up the NCTQ’s early financial support from the conservative-learning Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a think tank; its origins in the now-defunct Education Leaders Council, a conservative advocacy group; and its role as incubator of the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, an assessment-based certification program with no formal coursework. (The council has not been affiliated with ABCTE since 2004.)

“The NCTQ report is intended to support a specific political agenda that seeks to label teacher preparation and the teaching profession as failed enterprises that should be taken over by the corporate, for-profit sector of our society,” three faculty members from Wisconsin universities wrote in an op-ed that appeared in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel shortly before the report was released.

But Ms. Walsh, a Democrat, defended the project, noting that her position on teacher preparation has evolved and that she no longer views such fast-track preparation programs as a long-term strategy for improving teacher capacity. Teachers, she said, do need specialized training, particularly in how to teach reading and mathematics.

Eight years of conducting pilot studies for the report, she said, caused her to realize that “it wasn’t teacher education I didn’t believe in, it was teacher education the way it’s preponderantly done I didn’t believe in,” she said.

No Common Thread

Inevitable controversy over ratings aside, the review appears to bolster other studies indicating that there is wide variation in what teacher-candidates are expected to learn.

The review found, for instance, that elementary programs used 866 different textbooks in reading fundamentals, compared with a more manageable 17 in math. For a secondary science education degree program, Alabama State University required nearly 56 credit hours in a number of science disciplines, whereas at York College of Pennsylvania, an identically named degree required only 29 hours of science. Such variations appear to be particularly deep at the elementary level, where, the council noted, “teacher-preparation programs frequently do not identify which courses elementary candidates should take” to ensure general knowledge across the curriculum.

Some of the variation also seems to reflect state rules. For example, Virginia programs got generally good marks on the secondary-preparation standard because that state requires coursework across a number of social-science areas. And programs in the three states that currently require teacher-performance assessments had higher scores on the lesson-planning standard.

For all the controversy kicked up by the review, several of its tenets have gained currency among policymakers, even in the field.

A panel appointed by the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation, the successor to two former accreditors, last week finalized new standards that include, among other things, a higher minimum-admissions standard and one on whether program graduates can boost K-12 student achievement.

Ms. Cornbleth of the University at Buffalo, meanwhile, said she hopes the report might help faculty members take better stock of their programs.

“I would like to think that all the brouhaha might just spur some looking at what we do, and why, and what can we justify,” she said. “And if we can’t justify it, then maybe we ought to rethink it.” 

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