Teacher Preparation

Elementary Teacher-Prep Programs Are Getting Better, According to Study

By Brenda Iasevoli — December 08, 2016 7 min read
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[CORRECTION (Dec. 9): The original version of this post said that 40 programs meet NCTQ’s bar; it should have said 40 percent of programs.]

On Thursday, the National Council on Teacher Quality released its review of 875 traditional undergraduate programs preparing elementary teachers in 396 public and 479 private colleges and universities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The conclusion? Education schools still have work to do, but they are making needed improvements to the way they train teachers.

The council’s president, Kate Walsh, says the results of the latest review make her feel hopeful about the future of teacher preparation. “We are seeing signs of change,” she said. “Everyone told us that you can’t make higher ed change, they won’t listen to anyone, they’re intractable. Now we know that is not the case, and that makes us excited.”

She points to the progress elementary programs have made in reading instruction. In 2016, 39 percent (320 programs) earned an A or A+ for their efforts, up from 29 percent earning the same grades in 2014.

“These findings are most encouraging,” said Walsh. “There’s nothing more definitive than the science of how to teach reading and what kinds of instruction kids need in order to optimize their reading success.”

Still, there are some programs that reject the science, according to Walsh. “Some programs dig in their heels,” she said. “They say teachers should come up with their own approach to teaching reading. It’s so ascientific, it’s appalling.”

The review judged programs based on their coverage of these components of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Thirteen programs earned an A+, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the University of Texas at Arlington among them, for teaching all five components and using “high quality” textbooks.

Walsh also noted the review’s findings on selectivity. Some program heads fear that raising the standards for entry into education schools will lead to greater teacher shortages, she said. But research shows that more-selective programs carry a prestige factor that may result in more candidates vying for entry. Half of all the selective programs included in the review, 113 of them, managed to assemble a diverse class of future teachers despite their tougher entry requirements.

“Many programs whine and complain that raising selectivity standards is unfair, and they will have to turn away qualified black and Latino candidates,” Walsh said. “But we find programs that are able to hold candidates to high standards and achieve diversity relative to the college population and relative to the state’s population even, so it’s really commendable.”

Grading Teacher Prep

The review ranked programs using percentiles based on the letter grades (A+ through F) they earned in these areas: admissions criteria; the teacher’s knowledge of early reading, math, and other elementary content; student teaching; and classroom management.

While the review did show the improvement that Walsh noted, it also found that quality varied widely from program to program, with some producing standout teachers and others, subpar.

Check out the full list of ranked undergraduate elementary programs. Topping the list are Purdue University and Lousiana Tech University. The 87 programs in the top 10 percent may be the best in the country, the review warns, but they only prepare 13 percent of the 59,000 teachers graduating from the programs the council evaluated.

Overall, Walsh doesn’t think the council’s standards are high enough, but she says it can’t raise the bar just yet. She cites the reading standard as an example. To pass it, a program must show that it provides two lectures and an assignment on each of the components of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension). But Walsh argues that prospective teachers need much more than two classes to remedy the reading problem in this country, which she calls a “public health crisis.”

“Our bar is really low and we still have only 40 percent of programs* in the country meeting it,” she said. “So we look at what you need to know to be minimally competent, to know that there is such a thing as reading science, to know that it isn’t up to candidates to figure out how to teach reading, that’s what we settled upon. But do I think it’s adequate? No. Would the review be a credible indicator of quality if nobody passes? I don’t think so.”

Here are more of the review’s key findings:

  • Of the 875 programs reviewed, 26 percent admit most of their teacher candidates from the top half of the college population.
  • Programs have made gains in selectivity. The number of less selective programs requiring at least a 3.0 GPA for admission has increased from 44 in 2014 to 71 today.
  • Only 112 programs of the 860 reviewed in math instruction earned an A for requiring at least one methods course and at least three courses covering topics that mathematicians deem critical, including numbers and operations, algebra, geometry, and data analysis. (Many programs require only methods courses.)
  • Only 5 percent of the 875 programs reviewed ensure their elementary teacher candidates have a good grasp of the science, history, geography, and literature they will one day teach.
  • Of the 851 programs evaluated for their student teaching, only 7 percent evaluate the qualifications of the teachers who will be mentoring their candidates. Just 3 percent of programs earn an A (and 2 percent a B) for making the effort to match candidates to qualified teacher mentors and requiring program supervisors to observe candidates’ teaching and provide feedback at least four times. (Five is the minimum needed to be effective, according to research.)
  • There has been slight improvement in classroom-management instruction since 2014. Of the 382 programs with classroom-management grades in 2014 and 2016, 42 percent received the equivalent of an A or B in 2014, compared to 47 percent today. The number of programs addressing how to respond to misbehavior in class increased by 8 percentage points.

Teacher Prep Pushback

One of the big complaints about the council’s reviews of prep programs is over its methodology. To make its determinations, the NCTQ reviews documents, including course syllabi, course catalogues, and textbooks.

Carole Basile, the dean of the college of education at Arizona State University, said much of the criticism came from what programs saw as an antagonistic approach to grading their efforts. “People put their backs up and said, '[The NCTQ’s approach] isn’t real research,’” Basile said. She adds: “This isn’t the most robust research, but it’s a way to call attention to some problems in teacher preparation and I think that’s what’s important.”

Arthur Levine, the current president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, agreed that the NCTQ’s antagonistic approach didn’t help. “If you thought a study was biased and that the reviewers had a negative view of ed schools from the beginning, you probably wouldn’t participate,” he said.

What’s more, Levine doesn’t trust the methodology. He said syllabi are not always accurate. But his distrust was solidified when he saw in a past review that two education programs received what he thought were entirely incorrect ratings. “One program was great and the other was less than mediocre,” he said. “And the report got them exactly backwards.”

In fact, the council did have to correct scores for a handful of programs after the 2013 review of teacher preparation programs was released. This time around, the council has allowed education schools to review their ratings before publishing the report. Programs could then provide evidence to refute the grades, and the NCTQ could make changes when appropriate.

Despite past ire over methodology, the latest review wasn’t met with as much resistance from teacher prep programs, at least not at public universities. In order to get course syllabi for past reviews, the council was forced to file open records requests. This time around, the council’s fees for open-records requests dropped 80 percent, according to Walsh. For the most part, she said, private institutions still don’t cooperate, so the NCTQ enlists help from students who write to the professors to get course syllabi.

Walsh chalks up the past discord to poor communication. “We came out very critical of teacher prep without much of an understanding of higher ed,” she said of the review’s early years. “We saw them as the enemy. We had a very poor understanding of how things work, and what it takes to succeed in higher ed and some of the pressures on them. That doesn’t mean that I let higher ed off the hook for not doing a better job of training teachers, but I have a better understanding of how they got to where they are.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.