Critical report on teacher preparation programs sparks debate

June 18, 2013

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Teacher Preparation Programs on the Honor Roll of the National Council on Teacher Quality. Source: National Council on Teacher Quality

Teacher Preparation Programs on the Honor Roll of the National Council on Teacher Quality. Source: National Council on Teacher Quality

California’s teacher training programs were excoriated as among the worst in a nation of poor-quality programs in a report released Tuesday, immediately sparking a debate about the validity of the report’s methodology and findings.

Nearly every teacher preparation program in California, at both public and private colleges and universities, received poor ratings in the report, which was issued by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit. The report was published as a new educational rating category by U.S. News & World Report, which publishes widely followed rating lists whose methodologies have been criticized by some educators.

Of the 52 teacher credentialing programs offered at California State University campuses, 20 received one star out of a possible four, designating mediocre at best, while 24 were deemed so weak they did not receive any stars at all and were instead tagged with yellow caution triangles, described in the report as “consumer alerts.” University of California campuses in Riverside, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz each received one star for their programs in elementary education.

Three California programs scored well and made the report’s “honor roll,” with the University of San Diego receiving 3½ stars for its program in secondary education and UC Berkeley and UC Irvine each receiving three stars for programs in secondary education.

More broadly, the report issues a scathing indictment of education schools across the United States. Teacher preparation is described as “an industry of mediocrity” that accepts applicants who generally are not high achievers and churns out first-year teachers grossly lacking in the classroom management skills and content knowledge needed to serve students.

Students assigned to first-year teachers experience significant learning loss, said Julie Greenberg, senior policy analyst at the National Council on Teacher Quality. “More grievously, a high percentage of kids assigned to first-year teachers are poor and minority children in schools with high teacher turnover,” Greenberg said. “If we are going to close the achievement gap in this country, we are going have to get much more vigilant about the effectiveness of first-year teachers.”

Methodology criticized

Many education leaders in California assailed both the methodology and the motivation behind the report.

“They really, really got it wrong,” said Beverly Young, assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs at Cal State, which educates the vast majority of the state’s teachers. “I think it’s important that people understand this work for what it is. It really is just a piece of work with a political agenda. It’s not a real study, it’s not research, but unfortunately it’s being presented that way.”

Young said the evaluation shows a misunderstanding of California’s teacher preparation system. For example, she said the NCTQ gave only 11 percent of California’s programs top marks for the quality and depth of instruction in science, technology, engineering and math courses – known as the STEM fields – compared to 35 percent nationwide.

The problem, Young said, is that California is the only state where teacher credentialing takes place in graduate school. There’s no undergraduate major in education. By the time students are admitted to a program, they’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree in whatever subject they plan to teach, and therefore it’s inaccurate to conclude that students haven’t received intense instruction in specific subjects.

The report’s authors said that the evaluation was based on whether the teacher preparation programs had systems in place to accurately determine how much training prospective elementary teachers had achieved in math, science and other subjects. California does not have those systems, they said.

Bill Lucia, president of Edvoice, a Sacramento-based education advocacy group that endorsed the report, acknowledged that the report probably didn’t capture all the relevant information about the state’s teacher preparation programs. But he said that disparities in the quality of the programs are well-known.

“Teachers, school superintendents, and principals know that not all CSU campuses’ teacher prep programs produce the same quality and effectiveness of multiple-subject elementary and secondary credentialed teachers,” Lucia said.

He added, “Ultimately it’s about having adults effectively prepared to serve children, so that school districts don’t have to go to extraordinary lengths to retrain new teachers.”

Linda Darling-Hammond

California does have some weak programs, acknowledged Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which accredits credential programs in the state. She also agrees that the standards used by the NCTQ are appropriate. The Council evaluated programs on 18 measures including classroom management, lesson planning, quality of student teaching and ability to teach specific subjects. On their face, the standards are the right ones to examine, Darling-Hammond said. The problem with the study is how the information is collected and analyzed, she said.

The NCTQ based its evaluation on whether a topic appears on a piece of paper rather than how that topic is taught, Darling-Hammond said. For example, one university might cover a subject with expert teachers modeling the lesson followed by students trying it out and then critiquing each other’s work; while another school might cover it in a 20-minute lecture. “Just having a topic on a syllabus, or having a book listed, doesn’t tell you much about the quality of instruction,” she said.

The teacher commission is also reevaluating the standards required to become a fully credentialed teacher, including whether the state’s one-year limit on the length of a teacher preparation program should be lifted, as EdSource Today has previously reported.  It’s an acknowledgement, said Darling-Hammond, that more time is needed to fit in courses that meet new expectations for teachers “in dealing with special education, English learners, technology, Common Core standards, child development, content pedagogy, positive discipline, child mental health, and everything else we are asked to ensure that teachers learn.”

Stanford University and CSU campuses were among some 700 colleges that refused to voluntarily participate in the evaluation because of what they described as serious flaws in the research.

“The work of NCTQ has to-date been characterized by questionable research methodology, inappropriate tactics in data collection, and a lack of opportunity for institutions to correct errors in data,” wrote then-CSU Chancellor Charlie Reed, together with the chancellors of the State University of New York and the University System of Maryland, in a February 2011 letter to the editor of U.S. News & World Report, explaining their reservations about the evaluation.

A top administrator at UC Santa Barbara’s teacher education program compiled a thick list of NCTQ’s inaccuracies in its review of that program including giving the school zero ratings for instruction on teaching English learners and for student teaching even though they have a four-course series devoted to the former and a full-year, 1000-hour supervised program for the latter.

Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said the report was a valuable service for applicants to education schools as well as school districts and parents.

Walsh added that Search Soft Solutions, an Indiana-based company that provides employee hiring software and systems to some school districts in California and across the nation, would include the rating of the program the candidate attended in the candidate’s employment profile.

“Part of our motivation is to make sure school districts are pressuring teacher preparation programs to deliver better teachers,” Walsh said.

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