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End the 'Easy A's' in Teacher Prep

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The perception that becoming a teacher is easy is incalculably corrosive—to the profession and to teacher-preparation programs.

That impression undermines the esteem in which teachers are held. It’s also insulting to skilled and competent professionals, and it sends a signal to the least committed and the least able students that teaching could be the career for them.

The National Council on Teacher Quality’s new report, “Easy A’s,” goes a long way toward explaining why that perception exists—by examining the grades that teacher-candidates receive relative to those of their peers and the coursework that’s required of them.

By reviewing 2010 through 2013 spring-commencement brochures from more than 500 institutions, we documented a long-suspected phenomenon: Teacher-candidates are significantly more likely to graduate with honors than their fellow students in other fields at the same institutions.

In fact, prospective teachers are almost 50 percent more likely than students in other majors to graduate with honors. While 30 percent of all students in the sample graduated with academic honors, 44 percent of teacher-candidates did so—a 14-point differential. Further, that average masks a stunningly large differential of 20 points or more at nearly a third of the institutions.

These results are a wake-up call for teacher prep, a confirmation of the damaging public perception that, too often, getting an education degree is among the easier college career paths—in preparation for one of society’s most challenging jobs.

"Prospective teachers are almost 50 percent more likely than students in other majors to graduate with honors."

The NCTQ studied commencement materials from 509 institutions; most of them are considered either “competitive” or “very competitive,” according to Barron’s. We looked at institutions across the nation, as well as colleges and universities of different sizes. Nearly 60 percent of the institutions were public; 41 percent were private. In terms of the coursework analysis, the institutions were all public, but ranged in size and geographic location. We included syllabi for all required professional coursework for teacher prep that we could obtain, as well as a random sample of electives.

The news from our review is not all bad. At a sizable number of institutions (42 percent), we didn’t find a substantial difference between prospective teachers and other graduating students earning honors. These institutions provide incontrovertible evidence that grading standards in teacher prep can align with those in other fields.

So, then, why are prospective teachers almost half again as likely as students in other majors to graduate with honors? That is the second focus of “Easy A’s.” We looked at popular explanations, including grade inflation, too much group work, too many juvenile assignments, better instructors, higher-caliber students, and gender differences. None of these other explanations held up.

What provided the most likely explanation was the types of assignments students are given. In reviewing nearly 1,200 courses and some 7,500 different course assignments, not just in teacher preparation, but in areas such as business, nursing, and history, two basic types of assignments emerged.

One kind of assignment, which we term criterion-deficient, tends to cover a broad scope of content, in which students often only have to give their opinions about something. The nature of these assignments makes it more difficult for the instructor to offer expert feedback and also objectively compare the quality of student work in the class. Even though some of these assignments can actually be quite time consuming, grades often have to be based on little more than that the assignment was turned in on time.

The other type of assignment focuses much more narrowly on demonstrating mastery of a specific knowledge or skill set. The clearly circumscribed nature of these assignments makes it more likely that instructors can provide productive feedback as well as objectively compare the quality of students’ work. We call these criterion-referenced assignments.

In fact, criterion-deficient assignments are about twice as common in teacher-preparation courses than in any of the other academic disciplines that were examined.

We propose that the preponderance of criterion-deficient assignments in teacher prep not only is likely driving the higher grades, but it is also reducing the opportunities for teacher-candidates to learn critical content and skills, forcing them to resort to trial and error when they land in an actual classroom.

High grades in teacher education would not be a problem if they reflected mastery of the content and skills that genuinely prepare teachers for the relentlessly demanding work ahead of them.

But talk to teachers—many of whom graduated with honors—and they emphatically say their academic experience bore little resemblance to the challenges and realities of real teaching. Rare is the teacher who doesn’t insist that she struggled mightily through her first year in the classroom, and perhaps for several years after that, before developing skills and confidence.

More Opinion

Where do we go from here? What are the implications of the findings in “Easy A’s”?

• Merely competent work does not deserve an A. Teacher-educators must embrace common standards for true excellence.

• Teacher-educators must ensure their students’ assignments are relevant to real classroom challenges by using criterion-referenced assignments. Part of our report shows programs how to make these shifts.

• Education programs should track the number of students who graduate with honors, making sure their grading standards align with those of other programs on campus.

By adopting these practices, programs can protect the teaching profession’s integrity and uphold their own reputations, while giving teacher-candidates the quality preparation they and their future students deserve.

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