Teacher Preparation

Is Teacher-Preparation Coursework Rigorous Enough?

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 12, 2014 6 min read
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Education schools seem to be giving out more A’s than other academic departments—even accounting for overall grade inflation, an organization critical of many current teacher-prep programs concludes in a new report released this morning.

And what’s more, the report, by Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, has a theory about why this happens: Prospective teachers are asked to write too many reflective journal entries, opinion-based narratives, and open-ended assignments. Because they’re so subjective, everyone ends up with a good grade, the report says.

Consider two different assignments in a reading-methods class, for instance:

  • [Create a] visual display and written paper of your personal reflections/memories about reading and writing from early childhood through your current life.

  • Complete a simulated literacy case study assignment based on literacy data given by the instructor. For this task, you will select one of six hypothetical students to use as a case study student. The six students represent a variety of learning needs, with two (2) students who are struggling readers and two (2) students who are English Language Learners. Specifically, you will analyze writing samples, plan future instruction from the data, include appropriate Common Core Standards, and incorporate complementary literacy activities for one elementary-aged student.

The difference isn’t semantics, the NCTQ argues: Such assignments are reflective of two camps in teacher preparation—one that focuses on the development of teachers’ professional identities, the other on conveying and helping candidates master a set of skills.

The council clearly favors team B, arguing that teachers who don’t get enough skills practice in their coursework are likely enter schools unprepared.

“Teachers entering the classroom on day one without having had the opportunity to practice with—and learn from—assignments designed to ensure mastery of content and skills begin their careers at a disadvantage, and they will likely spend their entire first year or more trying to catch up,” the report states.

Methods and Findings

The analysis is based on the council’s attempt to isolate just why, as research from 2011 shows, some education schools seem to give far more A’s than other majors—in that study, an average difference of one-half a letter grade or more.

In all, the NCTQ’s findings are based on the council’s analysis of 500 different institutions’ graduating classes and those students’ course grades. It looked at commencement brochures from the colleges and universities and found that on average, 44 percent of teacher-prep candidates received degrees with honors, compared to just 30 percent of the other students on campus.

The organization also analyzed the course assignments listed on syllabi for 1,161 courses, across several different majors (such as business, psychology, history, and nursing). These 7,500 assignments were coded as either “criterion referenced,” based on whether they set “a clearly circumscribed slice of knowledge and skill-based content, facilitating the instructors’ own ability to provide substantive feedback,” or “criterion deficient,” meaning they didn’t meet that benchmark. Many of the assignments deemed criterion-deficient asked for students’ opinions or permitted them to pick the topic or sample.

In one particularly interesting finding, the council examined the relationships, in seven different institutions, between the percent of course work based on criterion-deficient assignments and the average final course grade. In general, the more such assignments, the higher grade candidates got; in five of the seven institutions, that relationship was statistically significant.

Overall, the education majors tended to include far more criterion-deficient assignments than the other majors, the council found (see chart).

Controversy Continues

The NCTQ’s attempts to look under the hood of teacher-preparation programs has been highly controversial in the field.

There are entire websites devoted to playing up the group’s ties to so-called “corporate education reformers.” Groups like the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education have lambasted the council’s methods and noted its failure to submit research for peer review. Suspicions about its funding sources (which include major philanthropies, some who have been big backers of alternative teacher-certification routes) proliferate.

But the NCTQ’s reports have garnered national attention, in part because they fill a gap for policymakers and education leaders trying to get a handle on what’s going on across teacher-prep programs, which vary greatly in geography, size, and curriculum. Right now, data available across multiple institutions is either hard to find or in short supply. Only about half the states, for instance, issue their own annual reports on program performance; federal reporting is limited to fairly crude measures like licensing test-score outcomes.

Increasingly, it’s also clear that what the council sees as the goal of teacher preparation differs from what a lot of education school faculty members think it should be. In one section of the report, the NCTQ says: “All coursework for these teachers candidates should build the skills to teach, and the grades given for coursework should reflect teacher candidates’ progress in attaining competency.”

But as common education courses on the history of education, “critical theory,” and so forth attest, many scholars view education as an academic field, not simply a vocational one. (There’s frequently a divide in prestige in ed. schools between professors working on the former issues and those who handle the minutiae of hands-on training.)


The report comes in the middle of considerable policy interest in teacher preparation. Efforts are underfoot from national accreditation bodies to improve candidate selection and effectiveness. And U.S. Department of Education is soon expected to release long-delayed regulations to require states to determine whether the programs produce teachers capable of helping K-12 students learn more.

Reactions to the report are already coming in. The American Federation of Teachers acknowledged that lax grading standards are a problem in teacher preparation, but criticized how the NCTQ has gone about its work.

“While NCTQ employs a strategy to embarrass, and others, like the U.S. Department of Education, use the test-score strategy, we actually laid out a path in our 2012 ‘Raising the Bar’ report to strengthen teacher preparation for the 21st century.”

In that report, AFT called for a “bar-like exam” prospective teachers should pass before entering teaching. But AFT members don’t seem as positive about that idea as the union’s top brass: The rank-and-file rejected the use of a standardized performance assessment for teaching at the union’s convention this past summer.

UPDATED: The AACTE has put out a statement on the report, calling its evidence “meager” and further critiquing its methods.

Easy A’s suffers from methodological flaws, inadequate sample sizes, and scant evidence in an attempt to prove that the field of education is subject to disproportionate grade inflation,” the association said. “The authors rely on the review of documents—syllabi and commencement brochures—from only half of the institutions with an undergraduate teacher preparation program to draw conclusions about teacher candidates’ academic performance.”

The AACTE adds that the report does highlights the need to fully and accurately assess teacher candidates—something many of its programs are doing through the edTPA exam.

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