Higher Education

Controversial report paints grim picture of teacher education

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Amid a national debate about tenure laws that can keep ineffective teachers in the classroom, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), an advocacy group, has turned the spotlight on teacher education programs and the results paint a grim picture.

The second edition of the “Teacher Prep Report,” released earlier this week, looked at nearly 2,500 teacher education programs at over 1,000 colleges and universities, up nearly 40 percent from the first report released last year. Schools were ranked by a series of standards, including admissions selectivity, classroom management instruction, and student teaching programs as measured by public documents such as class syllabi and required texts.

Of the 1,668 programs ranked by the group, only 26 elementary education programs and 81 secondary programs earned the designation “top ranked.” Nearly 70 of the highest ranked programs are at public universities, with Tennessee, Texas and Ohio home to the most. Seventeen states have no ranked programs based on the council’s ratings.

The report blames lax admissions criteria and subpar student teaching programs for the low rankings. Three out of five programs admit students who fall academically in the bottom half of the college-going population. And just five percent (down from seven percent last year) of programs had components for a strong student teaching experience, the hallmark of traditional education programs.

New this year was the inclusion of “popular but poorly understood” alternative certification programs, including dozens of for-profit programs in Texas.

Council president Kate Walsh said the move to include alternative programs came after the first edition was widely criticized for ignoring them.

“This year we were able to do a pilot study of 85 programs adopting the same measures we use to look at traditional programs,” Walsh said. “We found that actually they perform worse than traditional programs on average.”

Walsh said alternative certification programs are not doing enough to make sure teachers know their subject matter, something that will only become more important as most states prepare to test the rigorous Common Core State Standards, which require broad content knowledge.

Nearly half of the 85 independent alternative programs evaluated are in Texas, the only state that allows for-profit companies to offer certification. “It gets down to the utter lack of (admissions) selectivity on their part, especially in Texas,” Walsh said. “Almost anybody can get into these programs.”

The list also included state-run and Teach for America regional programs. Teach for America in Massachusetts was the only alternative certification program to receive high marks.

Walsh said that because her group was also perceived as overly aggressive in its search for data, the council had to hire lawyers in nine states to get institutions to provide access to public documents.

“We went about it in a way in retrospect that was not sufficiently sensitive to people’s dedication and commitment to doing the best job they could,” Walsh said. A lengthy list of “non-cooperating institutions” was published with the report.

Some educators claimed the 2013 report was biased because the council believed that teacher education was broken, a charge Walsh denies. She said the council’s only motivation was to improve the quality of teacher preparation so that all graduates are prepared for their first day in the classroom. “That’s not too much to ask,” Walsh said. “It’s certainly what we expect of other professions.”

The report’s methodology has also been challenged because it does not include campus visits or surveys of graduates. Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, said the absence of standards that measure how much students actually learn while in school or how long they stay in the profession makes the new ratings much less useful.

“Until we focus accountability efforts on meaningful outcomes, we are unlikely to move the needle very far,” he said.

Still, Walsh defends the value of the report. It was created in the image of Abraham Flexner’s influential Flexner Report, which gave low ratings to nearly all medical schools in North America in 1910 and sparked a wave of reform that fundamentally changed how doctors are educated.

“There is no way that we are going to turn around the quality of teacher preparation and give teachers what they need and deserve without that kind of accountability,” Walsh said.

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Alexandria Neason

Alexandria Neason is a recent graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She has contributed to Chalkbeat New York, WAMU’s Metro Connection, National Public… See Archive

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