School & District Management

Disputed Review Finds Disparities in Teacher Prep

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 10, 2013 7 min read
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Across the nation’s 1,450 schools of education, and even within them, there is often little agreement on the specific things aspiring teachers should learn.

That conclusion is about the only one agreed on by both critics and supporters of a recent report savaging the state of teacher education in the United States.

The review, a joint effort of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization, and U.S. News & World Report, contends that only a small number of teacher education programs nationally are designed so that new teachers are adequately prepared.

Education faculty said that its conclusions were flawed and in some cases inaccurate—although in a bit of irony, most refused to cooperate with the council’s initial requests for documents.

The continuing controversy over the ratings aside, the project supports the notion that programs vary significantly in what they expect aspiring teachers to know and demonstrate.

Looking Broadly

The National Council on Teacher Quality reviewed 2,400 teacher education programs, primarily through analysis of course materials. Because of programs’ unwillingness to cooperate, the council was able to issue an overall rating to only 1,200 programs located at 608 institutions in all. Scores on some of the standards are available for programs at another 522 education schools. Among the national findings:

• Programs that earned high marks, such as Dallas Baptist University, which received to three-star ratings, often are not located at those institutions with the most prestigious doctoral programs.

• Only about a quarter of programs in the sample admitted a sufficient academically strong group of candidates.

• Just 14 institutions had more than one strong program, and only one, Hunter College in New York City, had three.

• Not a single elementary program, graduate or undergraduate, got a four-star rating. Those programs were on the whole deemed weaker than secondary programs, largely because they do not ensure candidates have sufficient content knowledge.

• Though teachers routinely cite student-teaching as the keystone of their preparation, many candidates are not placed with the best teachers or observed frequently enough by faculty members.

• Graduate-level programs were said to do a much poorer job of preparing elementary teachers than undergraduate programs.

• While 81 percent of programs conduct surveys of their graduates, far fewer collect information on graduates’ classroom effectiveness, in part because most states do not yet provide that information.

SOURCE: National Council on Teacher Quality

“I think it’s a better statement about the state of the field than it is about any one institution,” said Arthur E. Levine, the president of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation.

Mr. Levine, a former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, and the author of a critical 2006 report on teacher preparation, faulted the NCTQ effort for not verifying its conclusions through visits and interviews, as his own work did. But he agreed with its broad conclusion.

“We don’t agree on how we train teachers,” he said. “And I don’t know of any other profession that behaves this way.”

Stingy With the Stars

The report comes during a flurry of policymaking on teacher preparation, including pending federal regulations and a newly finalized set of program-accreditation standards. But none of the efforts generated the fever pitch of the NCTQ project.

Released June 18, the project graded 1,200 programs on up to 18 standards on a scale of zero to four stars.

The review took more than two years to finalize and was supported by dozens of funders, including the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. (Education Week receives funding from the Carnegie Corporation for coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation.)

Reviewers analyzed syllabuses, student-teaching manuals, course textbooks, and other documents to rate each institution’s programs on more than a dozen standards. Many programs cooperated with the project only after receiving open-records requests, and private colleges are underrepresented in the project because their documents generally do not fall under states’ open-records statutes.

Just four programs, all in secondary teacher preparation, earned a four-star overall rating—Furman University, in South Carolina; Lipscomb and Vanderbilt universities, in Tennessee; and Ohio State University. Earning at least three stars were 104 programs. About 160 programs were deemed so weak that they were put on a “consumer alert” list by the council.

Programs had to score relatively high across multiple standards to earn high ratings. For example, Arizona State University was recognized for the care with which it supervises student-teaching, but garnered only two stars overall for its elementary teacher preparation. For both its graduate and undergraduate programs, California State University’s Domiguez Hills campus earned four stars for early reading, helping struggling readers, and reaching English-language learners. But with low scores in other areas, its programs were ultimately deemed to be weak.

Institutions received their ratings only a day before the release. Some schools have since contested individual ratings or claimed that the council rated programs that did not even exist. The NCTQ said it would make those arguments and its own responses public on its website, possibly beginning as early as this month.

The project also stirred up old antagonisms. The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing’s chairwoman, Linda Darling-Hammond, who has sparred repeatedly with NCTQ President Kate Walsh, took to the pages of The Washington Post to detail her criticisms about the review.

Deep Divisions

Such animosity was virtually a foregone conclusion. Almost since the day of its January 2011 announcement, education faculty have excoriated the project’s methodology and painted it as ideologically driven.

“It’s like doing restaurant reviews by looking at the menu rather than eating there,” said Catherine Cornbleth, a professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York at Buffalo, which received no stars for its graduate elementary program and two for its secondary program. “Research-wise, [the project] flunks. Politically, it’s probably a B-plus.”

Both the council and its opponents played hardball. In a handful of states, the NCTQ took legal action after faculty members at public institutions claimed that syllabuses were proprietary and exempt from disclosure under open-records laws. The NCTQ also tapped college students to help it collect documents when institutions wouldn’t willingly turn them over.

The 800-member American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, meanwhile, discouraged its institutions from participating. In communiques to members, the Washington-based organization deemed the review an “outrage,” a “Swiss cheese-style project,” and “unprofessional.”

Critics also played up the NCTQ’s origins in two conservative-leaning organizations and its role as incubator of the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, an assessment-based certification program with no formal coursework. (The council has not been affiliated with ABCTE since 2004.)

But Ms. Walsh, a Democrat, defended the project, noting that her position on teacher preparation has evolved and that she no longer views fast-track preparation programs as a long-term strategy for improving teacher capacity. Teachers, she said, do need specialized training, particularly in how to teach reading and mathematics.

Eight years of conducting pilot studies for the report, she said, caused her to realize that “it wasn’t teacher education I didn’t believe in, it was teacher education the way it’s preponderantly done I didn’t believe in,” she said.

No Common Thread

For some observers, the report is partly a reaction to a field that, like much of higher education, has tended to be insular and opaque in its workings.

“Higher education has itself to blame for this. Because they didn’t police themselves, and someone else came in and did it,” Mr. Levine said.

And despite the contested data, few national, publicly available data sources are available on teacher preparation. National accreditors, for instance, have historically released only limited information on the programs they review, and many institutions do not release their own reports.

“The goal to have a pretty clear view of how teachers are being prepared is a good goal,” said Robert C. Pianta, the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. “But I think it would be a mistake to suggest that the [NCTQ] report is anywhere near a complete description of what gets taught in programs.”

Still, the review appears to bolster other analyses indicating that there is wide variation in what teacher-candidates are expected to learn. It found, for instance, that elementary programs used 866 different textbooks in reading fundamentals, compared with a more manageable 17 in math.

For a secondary science education degree program, Alabama State University required nearly 56 credit hours in a number of science disciplines, whereas at York College of Pennsylvania, an identically named degree required only 29 hours of science.

Spur to Action?

Such variations appear to be particularly deep at the elementary level, where, the council noted, “teacher-preparation programs frequently do not identify which courses elementary candidates should take” to ensure general knowledge across the curriculum. Yet some educators questioned whether such confirmation was worth the project’s time and expense.

“We already knew about the variations,” said Sherman Dorn, a professor of education at the University of South Florida, in Tampa. “There are 50 ways states regulate teacher education, 50 ways they set bars for teachers, and faculty have different opinions about how to teach reading. ... The sort of big story here is that I don’t think we learned anything about the actual programs or the quality of the programs.”

Candice McQueen, the dean of education at Lipscomb University, hopes researchers will dive deeper into the report’s unanswered questions.

“I would love to do some research looking at the states that have [student-growth] data and seeing whether we can connect it to the inputs that are said to be positive,” she said.

Ms. Cornbleth of SUNY-Buffalo, meanwhile, said programs do need to take better stock of their programs, though she was unsure whether the NCTQ report would serve as the proper catalyst.

“I would like to think that all the brouhaha might just spur some looking at what we do, and why, and what can we justify,” she said. “And if we can’t justify it, then maybe we ought to rethink it.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Disputed Review Finds Disparities in Teacher Prep


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