Published Online: January 7, 2014
Published in Print: January 8, 2014, as Inspections Piloted for Teacher Prep
Updated: January 15, 2014

Inspections Piloted for Teacher-Prep Programs

A handful of states and universities are piloting British-style inspections to get a better sense of how their teacher-preparation standards are playing out in lecture halls and K-12 classrooms.

It's the latest attempt to crack a difficult nut that has generated increasing policy interest: what's really happening on the ground in preparation programs and how the training can be strengthened.

Four institutions, two each in New Mexico and Texas, participated this fall in inspections of their elementary education programs, which were conducted with the aid of a British inspectorate, the Tribal Group. Though small in scale, the initiative will expand next year, in what's likely to trigger closer scrutiny of U.S. states' ill-understood, frequently obscure processes for approving teacher-preparation programs.

"You can read the tea leaves," said Michael A. Morehead, the dean of the college of education at New Mexico State University, in Las Cruces, which took part in the inspection. "With all of the national rhetoric, there will be much more of an emphasis in the next three to five years on ways to determine whether teacher ed. programs are of appropriate quality."

Although it's early yet, participating universities say they've found the inspections, which focus particularly on the quality of instruction in coursework and student-teaching, to be useful.

A Closer Inspection

Four universities have participated in an inspection of their elementary teacher-preparation programs drawn from practices in the United Kingdom:

• Southern Methodist University

• University of Houston

• New Mexico State University

• Eastern New Mexico University

Programs were evaluated in four areas:

Quality of Selection

Picking students who have: earned a GPA of 3.0 or higher, are drawn from the top-third of the college-going population (based on standardized tests), and are representative of the state and districts served by the programs.

Quality of Content and Teaching Skills

Ensuring candidates know the content standards they will teach, are well-versed in scientifically based reading instruction, display classroom-management abilities, and know how to assess students and use data.

Quality of Clinical Placement, Feedback, and Candidate Performance

Choosing and training supervisors who provide feedback to student-teachers for improvement. Other factors include whether programs: ensure candidates demonstrate content knowledge and teaching skills, have an opportunity to practice in high-performing, low-income schools, and—when they become newly minted teachers—help improve student learning without additional training.

Quality of Program Performance Management

Using rigorous checkpoints to gauge candidate progress, and making improvements to programming based on surveys of principals and candidates and analyses of student-achievement outcomes.

States typically audit their programs every seven years by visiting campuses, examining faculty workloads, and determining whether coursework matches state teaching standards. Approved programs can recommend candidates for a license after they've fulfilled all state requirements.

Program approval is often confused with national accreditation. Accreditation is generally a separate, voluntary honor, though it is mandatory for teacher colleges in about a dozen states. (Some states conduct their program-approval reviews in tandem with accreditors, and still others use national accreditation standards for program review but do not require programs to seek accreditation.)

Funding for the pilot inspections came from the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based advocacy group whose controversial teacher-preparation review project last year deemed most programs subpar. NCTQ President Kate Walsh said that, aside from connecting interested states with the British group, the council hasn't been involved in the pilots.

"We are not conducting the inspections, we don't have anything to say about what's written, and we're not owning the process," she said. "We just wanted to get it going and make sure it's done well."

The Texas and New Mexico education departments asked institutions to volunteer for the pilot, promising not to make the results public. Even then, many were skeptical, given its genesis within the NCTQ.

"We did have some people who were aghast that we'd be playing with the enemy, so to speak," said Robert H. McPherson, the dean of the college of education at the University of Houston. "But the frame I used is that we'll welcome any reasonable people who want to give feedback on our program, as long as it's in the context of a scientific discussion and debate, not one based on ideology and philosophy."

New Standards

The Tribal Group, an organization based in Bristol, England, that contracts with governments in England and other countries to audit school and university instruction, with the NCTQ, helped develop a slim set of review standards encompassing four main areas. It also trained teams of inspectors for each of the four participating institutions. The inspections focus heavily on gathering evidence—through interviews, visits to courses and student-teaching sites, and discussions with graduates.

"We moved deliberately away from teaching as performance art and focused on what was happening in these classrooms," said Edward Crowe, a Washington-based consultant who is overseeing the pilots. "Were kids learning? Were students engaged?"

Previously, Mr. Crowe worked at the U.S. Department of Education, where he helped oversee grants for teacher colleges as well as the report cards federal law requires them to submit.

Under the pilot, the reviewers for each program included Mr. Crowe and three educators from each state: current or former principals, teachers, or reading specialists. That composition for review teams is distinct from the prevailing program-approval processes in states, which usually depend on other teacher-educators as reviewers.

Largely, the participating colleges say they valued the feedback.

"The team was objective. We didn't perceive a 'gotcha' mentality in our visit," said Mr. Morehead of New Mexico State.

In particular, he said he appreciated that inspectors looked at the practices of 14 elementary teachers over a three-day period, a depth of observation that the state review process lacks, he noted.

Added Mr. McPherson: "I think it's certainly a marked improvement over what the state can do with its limited resources."

One selling point was that each program designated a representative to be present at the meetings of the inspection team to offer feedback and clarification. As a result, there were few surprises when inspectors' final oral and written reports were delivered, the deans said.

A Costly Approach?

But programs nationwide aren't necessarily likely to rush to inspection-based models. The in-depth classroom visits, for one, make the process potentially costlier for programs, Mr. McPherson noted. And the narrower set of standards raised a concern for Mr. Morehead, who said he felt its focus on particular elements of reading instruction came perilously close to vetting curricula.

Nor is it clear whether membership groups will approve.

"It is not surprising to see that NCTQ wants to ride the wave of renewed interest in accreditation among policymakers and the profession," said Sharon P. Robinson, the president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, adding that her organization will "carefully observe" and seek members' feedback about the inspections.

Related Blog

Still, interest appears to be building among states. The NCTQ has received a $500,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to subsidize visits to additional campuses this year, and about 10 states are considering hosting them. (The Gates Foundation also underwrites coverage of business topics in Education Week.)

Other efforts to improve teacher-preparation quality are ongoing, including one related to accreditation.

The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, formed by the merger of two former bodies, approved a new, tougher set of expectations in August. Those standards also charge programs with producing evidence that candidates get to practice high-quality teaching.

They will be tested in several programs next year and introduced for all by 2016.

Vol. 33, Issue 15, Pages 1,10-11

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Correction: 
This story was corrected to reflect that the inspections will continue at additional campuses this year.

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