Recruitment & Retention Opinion

Who Benefits from Low Standards in Teacher Ed Programs?

By Justin Baeder — December 26, 2010 2 min read
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What responsibility do teacher education programs have toward public school students? When a teacher education program’s own self interest or the interest of its enrollees conflicts with the interests of K-12 students, what is the ethical course of action?

Teacher education programs (TEPs) operate, as Katherine Merseth of Harvard has said, as “cash cows” for universities. Would-be teachers, lured by the hope of stable middle-class jobs, are promised professional preparation and placement services in exchange for their tuition dollars. Within the university environment, TEPs compete with other academic departments for students. Given that broader labor market conditions determine how many people are interested in teaching, TEPs have limited ways to ensure that they stay fully enrolled, and it appears that a primary strategy is to ensure that all interested applicants are admitted.

Law schools, MBA programs, and medical schools are known for turning away under-qualified students (and even highly qualified students, in the case of more competitive programs). What happens when TEPs accept under-qualified students?

The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported recently on a study that compared the effectiveness of new teachers coming out of Teach for America and various teacher education programs, including Vanderbilt and the University of Memphis, and found that U of M teachers rank near the bottom. Unless TFA is working some kind of magic in its six-week summer training program, it’s safe to assume that a large part of the difference is in candidate quality. On this issue, a U of M spokesperson shared a rather surprising perspective with the Commercial Appeal:

U of M is required to serve a wide variety of people with a wide variety of abilities, Guenther said. "That has a bearing on what they learn here and how well they perform when they leave. "We are exploring the possibility of raising the admission standards in our teacher-preparation programs, which is a current national trend, but we have to weigh that change against our public mission."

I applaud Mr. Guenther for being forthright about this issue, but I must say I’m disturbed that the U of M’s public mission to its own students is explicitly pitted against the interests of the public school students who will be affected by their performance on the job.

What responsibility do universities have for the on-the-job performance of their graduates? Traditionally, none; if graduates do poorly as working professionals, this may impact the reputation of the university program, but there is no formal accountability.

Perhaps this conflict of interest is unavoidable and thus should be regulated—if institutions of higher education are allowed to lower their admission standards to hit enrollment targets or to honor open-admissions policies, perhaps NCATE and other accrediting agencies should step in to set a more meaningful floor.

It is emphatically not the purpose of public education to provide employment for whomever may want it, so I don’t have much patience for the argument that underqualified, underperforming educators somehow deserve a job.

That’s not to say that non-traditional students, including those with less than stellar academic backgrounds, can’t become great teachers. I would certainly not dismiss that possibility out of hand, but clearly there is a correlation between candidate quality and subsequent job performance, so any exceptions to minimum TEP entry standards should be made on the basis of solid information about a candidate’s potential.

Who do you think should be the gatekeeper for the profession—DOE, states, accrediting agencies, colleges of education, or the labor market itself?

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