Teacher prep programs score poorly in review

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

A week after a California judge ruled on a case involving teacher tenure, dismissal and layoffs, the National Council for Teacher Quality released its annual report on a more fundamental issue: the quality of teacher preparation programs.

TEACHER PREP: Most teacher prep programs in the U.S. scored less than a 50 on a 125-point scale, according to a new report.

“I think teacher preparation is something that’s often overlooked, but very important,” said Alix Freeze, senior director of communications and advocacy at the Association of American Educators. “Study after study dictates that the most important thing is to make sure there’s a great teacher in front of students. Great teachers are the key to student success.”

Those concerned with education reform ought to look more closely at improvements to teacher training programs, said Arthur McKee, managing director for teacher preparation studies at NCTQ.

“I think it’s potentially a game-changer,” he said. “If you think about some of these other reforms, we know teacher quality is the most important in-school impact in student learning. If you look at reforms that have to do with teacher quality — tenure reform, evaluations — they’re very important, and we support many as an organization, but we’re increasingly asking more of our teachers than before. If we’re going to say they have to do better to earn tenure or earn higher pay, or whatever consequences are attached to evaluations, we have to train them.”

Teacher preparation programs, as a whole, need improving, according to the report. Only a quarter of the programs expect aspiring teachers to be in the top half of their college’s academic pool. Making the top-ranked list were 26 elementary programs and 81 secondary programs, out of 836 programs studied.

“We’re not drawing from the top half of the population. Teachers are not getting instruction in teaching children how to read,” said Arthur McKee, managing director for Teacher Preparation Studies at NCTQ. “Just like we want to have well-trained doctors taking care of patients, we need to have really well-trained teachers so our students can learn.”

For improvements, McKee suggested drawing teachers from more elite academic backgrounds and making sure prospective teachers have the skills required to teach students.

“(Many teaching programs) are not giving enough feedback to those candidates and making sure those candidates are paired with an effective teacher to be a mentor,” he said.

On the report’s 125-point scale, most programs earned fewer than 50 points.

States and local districts should remove barriers to entry into the profession, including many on-paper credentials, which have little, if any, correlation with teacher effectiveness in the classroom, said Lindsey Burke, Will Skillman fellow in education at the Heritage Foundation.

But teachers ought to be held to high standards once they’re in the classroom, she said.

“Enabling aspiring teachers and mid-career professionals an easier route to the classroom — but rigorously measuring teacher performance once hired — is a promising path to improve the teacher workforce,” she said in an email.

For all the worthless or onerous state regulations, some state regulations help ensure quality teachers, said Kate Walsh, NCTQ president.

In Tennessee, for example, candidates must demonstrate knowledge of the subject matter before they can begin teaching high school, and student teachers can only be assigned to effective teachers.

It’s accepted that most teachers see a dramatic increase in their ability after their first year, but a good teacher preparation program can raise the bar for first-year teachers and close that gap, she said.

It’s common for teachers to feel unprepared their first year, Freeze said.

“We’ve polled our membership in terms of teacher prep, and they’re definitely supportive of more rigorous standards for entering the profession,” she said. “Many have reported feeling underprepared.”

Larry Sand, a retired California teacher of 24 years and president of California Teachers Empowerment Network, said he learned more in his first two days as a substitute teacher than he did in his two-year teacher preparation program in the 1980s. Teacher prep programs should include more on-the-job training and classes in classroom management, he said.

“You can sit in ed school for 10 years. You can sit in there for 20 years. Your first day in the classroom is going to be an education,” he said. “You’ll have 20 different kids with 20 different needs. Smart kids and not-so-smart kids, special ed kids, brilliant kids, all in the same class.”

He recommended a system in which aspiring teachers intern or apprentice with “master teachers.”

“Let them sit in the classroom with a master teacher, a couple days a week for a year, and just sit and watch and ask questions and then eventually the student teacher will teach the class a few times and eventually they’ll become a teacher,” he said. “There are enough good teachers. Pay these master teachers extra money because they’re doing extra work and they’re training new teachers. Let these young teachers sit with these master teachers and learn from the master.”

The review is intended to serve as a consumer guide, helping prospective teachers select quality programs and guiding superintendents and principals in their hiring decisions. Walsh said she hopes this will pressure higher education and teacher preparation programs to improve.

Walsh said NCTQ has seen some improvement in teacher prep programs in the past few years, but substantial improvements are needed if the U.S. is going to be internationally competitive.

“We’ve been trying to get the word out, initially with not much interest, but that’s changing,” Walsh said. “Teacher prep must be addressed for us to solve the problem of a substandard education system.”

The full report is available on NCTQ’s website.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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