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California has been trying to reform how it educates teachers for more than a decade, and some of its ideas have become a model for the rest of the country. But the vast majority of teacher preparation programs in California are still failing to adequately prepare teachers, according to a controversial new report released Tuesday that rated more than 1,200 schools of education across the nation.

The ratings, compiled by U.S. News and World Report and the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a pro-accountability advocacy group, are part of an effort to spur improvements in teacher quality. The hope is that if education schools are pushed to do a better job of preparing teachers in the first place, the country can solve many of its academic problems.

California teacher preparation programs
Students in an elementary teacher preparation program at California State University-Northridge participate in a lesson prepared by a classmate. Northridge’s undergraduate education classes were rated highly in several categories, but the program overall received a low score. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

“We have scratched an inch deep into the surface of these programs. Just going that deep we find fundamental flaws and weaknesses,” said Kate Walsh, NCTQ’s president. “I wonder if you went a lot deeper what you would find.”

Education schools across the country fared poorly, but California, which is among the top six producers of teachers in the nation, was identified as one of the three worst states at training teachers. Ninety percent of the state’s elementary education programs included in the review received the lowest rating possible.

The ratings left schools of education reeling. Some of the nation’s biggest producers of teachers, like Illinois State University and the California State University system, were rated poorly on the review’s scale of zero to four stars.

The ratings were based on standards such as how the program teaches classroom management and whether it prepares teachers for the new Common Core State Standards. For the 162 programs identified as the weakest in the nation, the common thread was low admission criteria and poor student teaching requirements.

But critics say that had NCTQ dug deeper, the group might have made different conclusions.

“Unfortunately, the answer to the question of what we can learn about teacher education quality from the NCTQ report … is ‘not much,’ ” said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University and chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, in a statement. “Without reliable data related to what programs and their candidates actually do, the study is not useful for driving improvement.”

In particular, Darling-Hammond said, the report did not accurately reflect the results of ongoing reform efforts in California.

In 1998, the state passed an ambitious law aimed at improving teacher preparation. The law allowed for multiple ways for teachers to earn a certificate and required that aspiring teachers take a performance test—which includes videotapes and extended essays—to prove they are ready to teach. One of those tests is the model for a new national exam adopted by 25 states.

Still, educators at some of California’s most popular schools of education have admitted there is little data showing their programs are any better. Some aspects of teacher preparation, like student teaching, still vary greatly by program and the state cut score for program admissions is low, just 123 out of a top score of 240 on a basic skills test.

The release of the rankings has many questioning how to evaluate teacher preparation programs, and if it is even possible.

California teacher preparation programs
A student in an undergraduate teacher preparation class at California State University-Northridge presents a reading lesson to the class.The school’s undergraduate education classes were rated highly in several categories, but the program overall received a low score. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

The best way, some experts and teacher educators say, is to examine how students perform once a graduate enters the classroom. The NCTQ report was unable to include student achievement data in its ratings, except for in one case, because not enough states collect it.

“Until we have a system that gives us data and evidence of what’s going on, all we have are perceptions of people saying colleges and schools of education aren’t doing a good job,” said Karen Gallagher, dean of the education school at University of Southern California in a February interview.

But gathering that information—which is usually based on student test scores—is difficult and fraught with problems.

Instead, NCTQ used information like course syllabi, textbooks, and admissions requirements. They requested information from 2,400 programs in 1,130 institutions, but only 1,200 programs provided enough data to receive a complete program ranking. Schools in at least five states refused to hand over information until forced to by open-records requests.

In a July 2011 letter to NCTQ, former chancellor of California State University, Charles Reed, questioned whether the data collected was a “valid approach for drawing conclusions about program quality and effectiveness.”

Walsh has defended NCTQ’s methods, and insisted that the review’s methodology was fair and unbiased.

The California State University system, which has educated 8 percent of America’s teachers in the last decade, received relatively low rankings, with 18 of its 39 programs receiving the lowest rating possible. The remaining 20 received a score between one and two-and-a-half stars.

On Tuesday, the executive vice chancellor of California State University, Ephraim P. Smith, said the system’s teacher preparation programs “have long been recognized for their innovation and excellence,” and pointed to a recent federally-commissioned report that highlighted the school’s work.

Although experts across education agree that teacher preparation must be improved, many doubt that the ratings will actually help.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union, lambasted the review. “It’s disappointing that for something as important as strengthening teacher preparation programs, NCTQ chose to use the gimmick of a four-star rating system without using professionally accepted standards, visiting any of the institutions or talking with any of the graduates,” Weingarten said.

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