Teacher Preparation

Review of Graduate and Alternative Programs Finds Gaps in Teacher Prep

By Madeline Will — April 12, 2018 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In graduate-level and alternative programs, there’s a mismatch between the preparation that teachers get and the real demands of teaching, according to a National Council on Teacher Quality review of 714 programs that prepare both elementary and secondary teachers.

NCTQ analyzed 567 traditional graduate teacher-prep programs, 129 alternative route programs, and 18 residencies, which are programs that place candidates in a mentor teacher’s classroom for up to a year. The Washington-based council assessed programs based on factors like the student-teaching experience, teacher candidates’ content knowledge, and how the program teaches classroom-management strategies.

Too often in these programs, teacher candidates don’t have the adequate content knowledge needed to teach elementary or secondary classes, the review found. Graduate-level and alternative programs aren’t necessarily equipped to provide remediation, NCTQ says, and they’re not always prescreening candidates’ knowledge before admitting them into the programs.

The inaugural NCTQ teacher-prep review in 2013 was heavily criticized by education scholars and teacher-prep officials, who took issue with its methodology. NCTQ heavily relies on document review for these reports, including examinations of course catalogs, syllabi, observation forms, and student-teaching agreements with districts. (The council lets programs review their ratings before publication and submit additional information if needed.)

NCTQ now parcels out its ratings based on specific types of institutions, said Robert Rickenbrode, the senior managing director of teacher preparation at the council. For example, in 2016, the group released ratings on elementary preparation programs at the undergraduate level.

“Folks still have some issues with our methodology,” he said. But “there aren’t as many [complaints] as there were in 2013-14. ... We’re not going away. ... We take great pains to say, look, this [review] isn’t everything. We say nothing about the instruction that is going on in college campuses. What we are looking for is design, and the documents we’re looking at are where the elements of design should be. The bar is so low, they should really be there.”

In its latest review, NCTQ has a heavy dose of criticism for both alternative programs and traditional graduate programs, saying there are “severe structural problems ... that should make anyone considering them cautious.”

These programs only last one or two years, the report says. Yet programs have to cram in subject-matter courses, classes on instructional methods, assessment, classroom management, and other pedagogical concerns, and student teaching.

“There’s a lot of professional coursework that needs to happen,” Rickenbrode said. “They need to understand the nuts and bolts of teaching. There’s very little room to take a look at addressing the gaps that may be present in candidates.”

Report Highlights

Few traditional graduate programs, the report says, make sure that teacher candidates know the subject matter taught in elementary schools—just 1 percent of programs require applicants to have adequate knowledge in mathematics. Most of the alternative programs try a different tactic: requiring applicants to pass the appropriate subject matter licensing test before admission.

However, both types of programs still have to teach prospective teachers how to teach reading. And that’s long been a struggle for institutions, Rickenbrode said. This year’s review shows there has been some improvement—23 percent provide scientifically based reading instruction now as opposed to 15 percent in 2014—but there’s still a long way to go, he said.

NCTQ defines scientifically based reading instruction as addressing the five “essential components” of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.

Programs for secondary teachers didn’t fare much better in the review when it comes to content knowledge: 71 percent of graduate and 96 percent of alternative secondary programs that offer a “general science” certification struggle to make sure their teachers have the necessary content knowledge to teach all science classes.

Often, someone who studied biology in college will enter the teacher-preparation institution wanting to become a biology teacher, Rickenbrode said. But, he added, institutions must remember that if that candidate earns a “general science” certification, he or she could end up teaching chemistry or physics—and needs to have content knowledge in that area as well.

NCTQ has long advocated for more effective student teaching, and this review backed up its assertion that schools aren’t doing enough to prepare educators. About 6 percent of graduate and alternative programs incorporate the two elements that NCTQ deems essential for an effective student-teaching experience: making sure mentor teachers are high quality and providing frequent feedback to student-teachers.

“Programs and providers still leave way too much to chance, particularly with the selection of that cooperating teacher,” Rickenbrode said. “We think it should be a lot more intentional—not rely on who has volunteered or a principal reccommendation. Accept the principal recommendation, but ask what underlines it. ... They should be effective teachers, and they should be able to mentor.”

And few institutions assess teacher candidates on their use of meaningful praise to encourage positive behavior among students—something that should be a key component of classroom management, NCTQ says.

Just 14 percent of traditional and 23 percent of alternative certification programs have rigorous admissions criteria, the review declared.

What are the standout programs?

The report says that the top-ranked teacher prep programs are found in relatively small and little-known colleges and universities, rather than the elite and expensive campuses.

  • NCTQ argues that residencies should screen mentor teachers for both their mentorship and instructional skills, and about half of the 18 residencies surveyed do so. The report lists Aspire Teacher Residency in California, the Boston Teacher Residency, and the Relay Graduate School of Education in New York as among the programs that give teacher candidates a strong mentor.
  • Western Governors University, an online institution in Utah, and Evergreen State College in Washington state were lauded for how they prepare teachers to learn elementary content (literature, history, and science), earning an A+ on the NCTQ’s standard.
  • NCTQ highlighted 27 traditional graduate programs that are both selective and racially diverse, including several City University of New York campuses, the University of Virginia, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Alternative providers claimed the top two spots for the elementary program list: INSPIRE Texas and YES Preparatory schools’ teaching excellence program, also in Texas. Johns Hopkins University rounded out the top three.
  • For secondary programs, the top three are: CUNY-Hunter College, the Richmond Teacher Residency, and CUNY-Lehman College.

A full list can be found here.


How can these programs better prepare teachers? NCTQ has a list of recommendations, including making sure that all candidates spend at least six weeks in the classroom of an effective teacher.

Programs should also either prescreen applicants to make sure they know the core content they will teach, or prescribe remediation when the candidates are in the program, according to NCTQ.

For elementary programs, Rickenbrode said program leaders should pay more attention to candidates’ college transcripts and match what the teacher is going to be teaching in the classroom with his or her previous college experience. For example, an elementary teacher should have taken classes in U.S. and world history, he said.

It’s harder at the secondary level, he said, since most undergraduate degrees won’t be general math or science, like teacher certifications are.

“The easiest answer, the most straightforward answer, is just testing,” Rickenbrode said. “Be a lot more intentional about making sure folks have the knowledge they need before they go into the classroom.”

Image via Getty

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