Projects Under Way in 2 States to Judge Teacher Prep

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As calls to improve the quality of teacher education programs nationwide intensify, two statewide projects are scrutinizing their own institutions of higher education to see what they are doing right, or wrong, in preparing new teachers.

Louisiana and Ohio are using different models to measure the effectiveness of new teachers who graduate from the states’ preparation programs. While the Louisiana project primarily uses several years of student data to track teacher effectiveness, the Ohio model includes extensive surveys of new teachers responding to their first few years in the classroom.

Some institutions of higher education such as California State University and the University of Texas are also evaluating their teacher-preparation programs.

The Ohio study is the result of a partnership among all 50 teacher-preparation programs in the state, including 37 private and 13 public schools. The findings will be used to establish a set of program profiles and guidelines that the institutions can refer to, said Robert Yinger, the Cincinnati-based research director of the Ohio Teacher Quality Partnership.

“Part of the agreement was that it would be a formative project where we would study ourselves, and not be a teacher education report card,” he said, adding that the project will not single out programs for criticism or approval.

But in Louisiana, where all the state’s 21 schools of education are being watched, the stakes are higher. Jeanne M. Burns, the associate commissioner of teacher education initiatives with the state board of regents, said while details are yet to be worked out, she expects the findings will eventually be integrated into the state’s accountability system for teacher-preparation programs.

The goal is to narrow down factors that have a positive effect on some universities with successful programs, and share that with other campuses, she said. “We are not looking at every university being exactly the same, … but what we want them to do is learn about what works and can be shared with other universities.”

Early Findings

People both inside and outside the field have for the past two decades decried the quality of teacher education, with the most recent and some of the harshest criticism coming from Arthur E. Levine, the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University. In a report released last year, Mr. Levine painted the teacher education field as a troubled one in which a majority of aspiring educators learn in low-quality programs that do not sufficiently prepare them for the classroom. ("Prominent Teacher-Educator Assails Field, Suggests New Accrediting Body in Report," Sept. 20, 2006.)

An effort to improve colleges of education has been ongoing in Louisiana, Ms. Burns said. A statewide accountability system was implemented in 1998, and all programs now either have accreditation from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education or are working toward it.

The project, Ms. Burns said, was another step toward improving teacher quality. Early findings of the teacher-college study released last year showed that 45 percent to 50 percent of Louisiana’s programs are preparing new teachers whose contribution to their students’ achievement is comparable with that of experienced teachers in mathematics, English/language arts, and science.

But the results, which did not disclose the names of individual colleges, also showed that up to 20 percent of the programs are producing teachers whose student growth is significantly below the level of experienced teachers.

Researchers say it could be at least two more years before they complete the study, after which the full findings, including the names of the institutions, will become public.

George H. Noell, a psychology professor at Louisiana State University, who is carrying out the study, said that once researchers have enough evidence to point to strong and weak programs, they will attempt to pinpoint which areas need improvement.

“We recognize that strengths and weaknesses can occur across many areas, including admissions, content preparation, education-specific content preparation, methodology, and student teaching,” he said.

Not a Complete Picture

Teacher-quality experts worry that projects like the one in Louisiana cannot present a full picture.

Barnett Berry, the president of the Center for Teaching Quality in Hillsborough, N.C., said researchers need to be honest about the limitations of using student-achievement data to measure teacher effectiveness.

He cited other criteria that needed to be considered as well, such as the diversity of conditions under which teachers teach, whether they stay long enough in the profession, and whether teachers have access to mentoring or receive planning time.

Education deans whose schools are under study, however, called the experience positive. Gerald Carlson, the dean of the education college at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said initially the project appeared to rely too much on test scores. But, he added, researchers—at the deans’ behest—incorporated such variables as classroom demographics into the model.

“I hope colleges of education would look at this as a positive step toward improving the quality of teachers in our state,” said Mr. Carlson, who is also the president of the Louisiana Association of Colleges of Teacher Education.

In Ohio, meanwhile, final results aren’t expected until around 2010, although Mr. Yinger said he and his colleagues have already been sharing some preliminary findings with colleges.

The study is still at the survey stage where more than 5,000 new teachers are asked each year, starting in their last year of college during preservice training, about their perceptions of the program they went through, and how well they feel they were prepared to teach in K-12 classrooms. Eventually, the project will focus on a cohort of 600 teachers and gains their students make over several years.

No Takers

Those behind the projects in Louisiana and Ohio say they are seeing a great deal of interest from other states. But so far there appears to be no rush to take up similar studies.

Edward Crowe, a senior consultant with the Washington-based National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, said the reason could be that implementing such a project requires a complex data system that many states do not yet have in place.

Besides, he added, there is some concern about turning too critical an eye toward preparation programs at a time of teacher shortages. “If they had a stronger accountability system at the local level, they would have to face the reality of closing programs or forcing them to improve,” Mr. Crowe said.

Some universities themselves have taken on the task of looking at their own teacher-preparation programs. For instance, the California State University system’s Center for Teacher Quality has been surveying graduates of 22 of the university’s campuses. The project will eventually look at the learning gains of students taught by the university’s graduates.

A project at the University of Texas at Dallas uses data from multiple state agencies, school districts, and other sources to study the effect teachers have on student gains.

In Mr. Berry’s view, a comprehensive system to measure teacher effectiveness would look at “where teachers come from, where they started learning to teach, where they end up teaching and graduating from, how long do they stay, and how well they help students learn on a variety of measures.”

Given the difficulties of pulling together the various pieces of information required, it could be a while before such a system could be developed. Meanwhile, Mr. Berry said, the undertakings by Louisiana and Ohio, despite shortcomings, are “a noble idea.”

Vol. 26, Issue 24, Pages 5, 17

Published in Print: February 21, 2007, as Projects Under Way in 2 States to Judge Teacher Prep
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