• December 22, 2014

'An Industry of Mediocrity': Study Criticizes Teacher-Education Programs

Colleges of education are "an industry of mediocrity" that churns out unprepared teachers to work in the nation's elementary and secondary schools, according to a highly anticipated report.

The report, "Teacher Prep Review," describes the findings of a controversial effort to rate the quality of programs at 1,130 institutions nationwide that prepare about 99 percent of the nation's traditionally trained teachers. Released on Tuesday, the report is the product of a partnership between the National Council on Teacher Quality and U.S. News & World Report.

Researchers with the council based their analyses on documents, including education programs' syllabi and handbooks, and reached a blistering conclusion: About three-quarters of programs nationwide earned two stars or fewer on a four-star scale—"ratings that connote, at best, mediocrity," the authors write.

Less than 10 percent of teacher-education programs earned three stars or better. Only four programs—Furman University in South Carolina, Lipscomb and Vanderbilt Universities in Tennessee, and Ohio State University—earned four stars. All of the top-rated programs prepared teachers to work at the secondary level.

"We are really honestly proud of our program," said Nelly Hecker, a professor of education at Furman, who added that she was surprised so few programs were found to be high-performing.

About 14 percent of the programs, 162 in all, were given the lowest rating, no stars. In the report, those programs were marked with a "consumer alert," signified by an exclamation point in a bright yellow triangle. They were judged to be so lacking in quality that the students attending them were unlikely to realize much return on their investment because they had not received "even minimal training."

Still, the study's authors cautioned that graduates of even the lowest-rated programs could still succeed. "Low-performing programs can, and indeed often do, graduate teachers who end up being effective," they wrote.

The review's gloomy assessment is not entirely novel, said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality and one of the report's authors.

"We're not saying anything that a lot of folks haven't been saying for decades," Ms. Walsh said in an interview. "Our primary focus is that teachers are classroom-ready, that they're ready to go into the classroom on Day 1."

'A Really Thin Look'

The council's work has met fierce resistance since data collection began two and a half years ago, with deans of several education programs questioning the review's methodology, and some states balking at furnishing the council with the materials it requested.

The council submitted open-records requests to obtain materials from public institutions and asked private colleges to volunteer their information. Students at some private programs submitted documents to the council, Ms. Walsh said, and the council sued higher-education systems in Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

The analysis encompasses 18 categories, including how the programs select students for admission; how they instruct future teachers to plan lessons, teach their subjects, and manage their classrooms; and what kinds of student-teaching experiences they offer.

The council evaluated programs' syllabi, textbooks, student-teaching handbooks, and student-teacher evaluation instruments in those categories. It also judged how well the programs adhered to a set of standards, including guidelines for teaching mathematics, special education, and other content set out by the Common Core State Standards.

The study's authors also relied on what they describe as expert consensus, strong research, the practices of states or nations that have high-performing teacher-training programs, and "occasionally just common sense."

For example, student-teaching programs are often described as an important part of traditional training programs, and one that distinguishes those programs from alternative training programs. But the council found that just 7 percent of the programs it studied took what it described as basic measures to help teachers-in-training to succeed, such as ensuring that high-quality teachers were their mentors.

"Instead," said Ms. Walsh of the attitude toward recruiting mentors, "they'll take anyone as long as they've been there for three years."

Robert C. Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, said that the council's position as an outside observer, and not as an accreditor or institutional association, was potentially useful and that the standards were reasonable.

But the evidence on which the review was based, he said, could truly shed light only on how well the programs documented what they were doing—and not on how effective those practices actually were. "At best, that's a really thin look at things and a really indirect way of seeing if they're producing teachers that are producing in the classroom," he said.

Mr. Pianta also said a larger issue is that the factors that lead student-teachers to become excellent classroom teachers are still not well understood. "The field is admittedly weak on this," he said, "partly because we don't have very good assessments."

Virginia's programs earned one and a half stars, which Mr. Pianta said would spur faculty members to take a closer look at what they are doing and how they document it.

Philosophical Difference

Another reason for the poor ratings nationwide, said Ms. Walsh, is a fundamental difference in philosophy between the council and many of the programs it surveyed. Teacher-training programs have come to see their students as their clients, Ms. Walsh said. The council believes the programs serve the schools in which their graduates will eventually teach.

As a result, she said, colleges of education focus on the feelings of their students, and encourage them to shed biases or prejudices about the pupils they will eventually teach. The future teachers are also taught to develop a personal approach to teaching, one that does not pay sufficient attention, said Ms. Walsh, to what the available research might suggest.

While a course on teaching methods once taught students tools they would use in the classroom, she said, most such courses now focus on helping a future teacher develop a professional identity.

Another reason for the findings, said Ms. Walsh, is that colleges of education admit too many applicants who perform poorly as undergraduates. About 25 percent of the programs admit students in only the top half of their class. High-performing countries limit entry to the top third, the study found.

"It exhibits such little respect for the profession," Ms. Walsh said, "that we think anyone should be allowed to train."

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