Disparate Teacher-Prep Curricula Complicate Accountability Efforts

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 16, 2014 4 min read
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For some observers of the field, the relative leniency of states in reviewing their teacher-preparation programs is symptomatic of a general lack of agreement on what candidates should learn, and how they should learn it.

Nearly all teacher-preparation programs contain four basic components, though the precise proportions vary according to state rules: content instruction, the theoretical “foundations” of education, teaching methods, and student-teaching in K-12 schools.

Beyond those common strands, though, the curriculum for teacher preparation “has been largely driven by ideology and tradition, rather than empirical knowledge and investigation. That to me is the nub of the problem,” said James G. Cibulka, the president of the Washington-based Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, or CAEP, the national accreditor. “We have allowed a thousand flowers to bloom, including weeds, because there was no empirical basis on which to separate the wheat from the chaff.”

As a result, observers say, establishing a rigorous but manageable quality-control system has proved challenging for states.

A 2013 report by the National Academies of Education examining different ways of auditing teacher-preparation quality spent just a page on states’ current “program approval” processes, concluding that the systems were disparate, insular, and ill-researched.

“Program-approval processes vary widely across states, and there is currently no systematic information or objective analysis of how each state carries out its process,” a team headed by Michael Feuer, the dean of George Washington University’s graduate school of education, wrote in the NAE report. “There has been little research on the effects of state approval systems on teacher education and other aspects of the education system.”

Education Week’s recent analysis of states’ program-approval processes, meanwhile, found that states relied on an array of different teaching benchmarks: national standards, such as those promulgated by the Council of Chief State School Officers; state-crafted standards, often modified versions of those used by the national accreditors; and content standards for specific subjects or grade spans produced by specialty professional associations, such as the National Council of Teachers of English.

Virginia’s approval standards, for instance, span some 95 single-spaced pages. And that doesn’t include the nuances of the handbook that each state’s reviewers use when they apply them during their visits.

Given the lack of clarity, even some education school faculty members tend to be dismissive of program approval.

“The [approval processes] I’m familiar with tend to be quite nominal. None of it really gets at the way we prepare students, the assessments we use, the way the program is organized,” said Deborah Ball, the dean of the University of Michigan’s education school.

“It’s basically a superficial checklist,” she said. “I guess it prevents completely irresponsible preparation, but there isn’t good evidence that those are the components that ought to be important.”

Most review processes also do not explicitly vet the caliber of instruction or the quality of the feedback that candidates practicing in schools receive.

Under New York state’s former review system, for example, programs were cited for inadequate faculty qualifications, a high ratio of adjuncts to full-time professors, and failure to address topics such as special education sufficiently. While all of those factors probably bear a relationship to program quality—overburdened faculty members are unlikely to make good mentors for aspiring teachers—they may only be proxies for measuring overall performance.

There has been growing interest in the use of inspectorate-style models to examine the quality of instruction and student-teaching. The challenge has been the potential cost of such models. And as with teacher evaluation, questions persist about whether brief observations of individual courses truly paint a fair picture of an education program or college’s quality.

“The field doesn’t have very trustworthy ways of measuring the quality of instruction of individual courses in higher education,” said Robert E. Floden, the co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, in East Lansing.

Officials in some states, like California, believe that performance assessments given to candidates before they take on their own classrooms offer a potential source of useful information, because they show whether a candidate can handle the basic elements of planning lessons and tailoring instruction to diverse groups of students before graduating.

California officials are also mulling whether it’s possible to shorten and focus their teacher-preparation standards and review process.

“Our standards themselves are exhaustive, and the essentials are probably in there, but there are probably a lot of other things in there, too,” said Mary Vixie Sandy, the executive director of the California Commission for Teacher Credentialing. “Can the essentials be missed in that? Probably they can. An average program document is 1,000 pages. How can you boil this down to the essence?”

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 January 07, 2015 edition of Education Week as Teacher-Prep Review Processes Seen to Lack Clarity


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