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Teacher Preparation Opinion

We All Pay the Price for Bad Teacher Prep

By Kate Walsh — August 22, 2019 4 min read
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Despite this being an age of information overload and listmania, there is remarkably little publicly available information about which of the nation’s 1,400-plus traditional teacher-prep institutions are doing a good job of preparing teachers. Aspiring teachers don’t know which programs will set them up to pass their state’s licensing tests or teach children how to read. Consequently, they unknowingly end up enrolling in programs where the odds are slim of qualifying for a state license.

And school districts design their teacher recruitment strategies based on their experiences with a few really great or really weak hires, rather than a careful analysis of how well a program’s graduates have performed.

Most surprising, given that states serve as the government regulators over educator-prep programs, many states fail to consider good, objective evidence in deciding if programs ought to continue to operate.

It’s not that the industry of teacher preparation is functioning just fine on its own, making such evidence of program quality superfluous. Most prep programs do such a poor job of readying candidates to pass a common licensure test that in many states, more than half of all aspiring elementary teachers fail on their first attempt. Compare this with nursing candidates, more than 85 percent of whom pass on their first attempt. Nearly two decades after the National Reading Panel settled the science behind how children learn to read, only a third of the prep programs that the National Council on Teacher Quality surveyed actually teach that science. The shortcomings are deep, and they are real.

With so little quality control being exercised and so little information available, key decisions are about as random as a coin toss. And who’s paying the price? We all are—in lost student learning, turnover costs, and an erosion of respect for the profession.

The shortcomings are deep, and they are real.

This doesn’t mean no one’s tried to put out better data. Several years ago, CAEP—the largest accreditor of teacher-preparation programs—released new standards that raised the admission’s bar for teacher-prep programs. However, the organization soon scaled the standards back amidst a backlash against the more challenging entry requirements for programs.

A few states also tried to link teacher-prep programs to the value-added measures of their graduates’ effectiveness, but these efforts ultimately failed.

Even efforts by some states to make public some programs’ chronically low pass rates on licensing tests have been abandoned. The federal government took a turn at requiring states to collect better information through new teacher-prep regulations—but these were among the first rules the Trump administration nixed under the 2016 Congressional Review Act.

Consequently, all we’re left with are the highly misleading Title II guidelines requiring that states report the licensure-test pass rates, but allowing institutions to define the criteria. For many programs, for instance, one criterion is to pass the licensing test. By not reporting on all the people who didn’t pass the test and therefore didn’t complete the program, these programs can accurately say that all their graduates passed their tests.

These attempts should not be the final chapter. Given the centrality of teacher quality to virtually all efforts to improve pre-K-12 education, good data on program performance is essential. In the words commonly attributed to management expert Peter Drucker, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

NCTQ is trying to fill some of this void, but we do so without the teeth of a government authority or even the professional pressure an internal authority might have. Instead, as a nonpartisan research and policy nonprofit, we want to contribute to the public good by simply making information available and useful to aspiring teachers and school districts that will hire them.

This year, we published the book Start Here to Become a Teacher to identify some of the top teacher-prep programs in the country and offer more general advice about what to consider when entering the teaching profession. We wrote this to inform aspiring teachers about which programs will teach them core skills, give them a strong student teaching experience, and situate them near districts with a salary that enables them to rent an apartment. Our Teacher Prep Review provides a searchable database of rankings for teacher-prep programs across the country. NCTQ also provide school districts with program performance data to help them find candidates who are likely to have learned the skills that make them ready on day one.

While our organization is proud of our efforts to bring transparency to teacher prep, we cannot and should not be doing this work alone.

We urge government policymakers and the teacher-prep field itself to take action. The federal government can revise Title II reporting requirements to require programs to provide more complete pass-rate data. States can use the approval process to gather information on whether programs are meeting the state’s standards and make these data available to the public. And districts should link data on teachers’ retention and performance back to their prep programs to target their recruitment efforts.

Everyone has a crucial role to play in sharing clear, actionable information that can strengthen future cohorts of teachers.

A version of this article appeared in the August 28, 2019 edition of Education Week as The Teacher-Prep Information Gap

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