Teacher Preparation

Student-Teaching Found to Suffer From Poor Supervision

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 21, 2011 6 min read
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The student-teaching experience offered by many traditional schools of education couples poor supervision with a lack of rigorous selection of effective mentor-teachers, a controversial report issued today concludes.

Released by the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, the report examines student-teaching practices in 134 education schools, or about one-tenth of such programs nationwide. All but a quarter of the programs reviewed earned a “weak” or “poor” rating.

Among other conclusions, the council contends that colleges are preparing too many elementary-level teachers—perhaps more than double the number needed nationally—thereby taxing both the higher education institution and its partner school districts’ ability to provide high-quality field experiences.

“Ed. schools are begging schools to take these student-teachers,” said Kate Walsh, the president of the NCTQ. “It tells you a lot about the state of teacher education that we find it acceptable that student-teachers don’t have to meet a measure of quality, nor do the people who train them.”

Some teacher educators criticized the review for its methodology, charging that the council put too much weight on document reviews to the exclusion of other factors, and did not make public the scoring system used to rate the institutions.

“I actually think for the most part the standards are appropriate,” said Ada Beth Cutler, the dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Montclair State University, in New Jersey. “But they have made a determination that a majority of the institutions are weak and poor, and we don’t know how they arrive at that. They are not transparent about the ratings, and I think that’s irresponsible.”

Such complaints echo the controversy surrounding a larger project under way by the NCTQ and U.S. News and World Report to issue ratings to all 1,400 schools of education, a project that has already generated considerable opposition from university-based programs. (“Teacher-Quality Group to Revamp Education School Review,” Feb. 23, 2011.)

Methodology

The review comes as teacher educators and policymakers alike push the idea of remaking student-teaching in the mold of a medical residency—much lengthier and more rigorous. (“New Vigor Propelling Training,” Dec. 1, 2010.)

Although a long-standing feature of university-based preparation, student-teaching is perhaps the aspect about which the least is known, according to at least two major reviews of the research on teacher preparation.

Both a 2010 publication by a congressionally mandated panel at the National Academies and a volume published by the American Educational Research Association in 2005 found few empirical studies linking specific field practices to student-learning.

The NCTQ review, though itself not a statistical analysis, aims to fill in some gaps through a wide-ranging survey of programs. The council reviewed 134 programs selected randomly from a stratified national sample against five standards, which were established with the aid of an advisory group of teacher educators and researchers. The sample was designed to include preparation programs from all 50 states and the District of Columbia and to include a mix of private, public, and sectarian schools.

The standards include whether the programs require a full-time student-teaching experience of at least 10 weeks and whether mentor-teachers at the elementary schools in which teacher-candidates are placed met three criteria: three years of teaching experience; the ability to improve student learning; and a knack for working effectively with other adults.

To check for those elements, the council’s analysts examined documents from the preparation programs, such as student-teaching manuals and agreements with local school districts. They supplemented the document review with interviews with principals in schools hosting student-teachers and with on-site visits to five programs.

Among other findings, the report found that:

• Three-quarters of programs reviewed met the standard of 10 weeks of student-teaching.

• Eighty-two percent of programs reviewed required cooperating teachers to have three years of experience, but only 28 percent explicitly required cooperating teachers to be effective instructors, and only 38 percent required them to be effective mentors.

• Fifty-four percent of principals surveyed reported that their partner institution had no criteria for selecting mentor-teachers, and the council judged that only 7 percent of institutions required mentor-teachers to meet all three specified criteria.

• Just under half the institutions required university supervisors to visit candidates at least five times, but they often did not have adequate tools, such as consistent evaluation forms, for providing helpful feedback to teachers.

The report found no differences in performance based on institutional characteristics, such as whether they are public or private, situated in urban or rural locales, or hold national accreditation.

Reaction and Rebuttals

The report drew a variety of reactions, with several observers praising the NCTQ standards but taking issue with some of the report’s conclusions and recommendations.

“The standards are, by and large, not bad, but there are assumptions that I think are very questionable,” said Mona S. Wineburg, the executive director of The Woodlands, Texas-based Center for Research, Evaluation and Advancement of Teacher Education, a research-and-development coalition for improving university-based teacher education in that state.

For instance, she questioned the report’s recommendation that institutions and districts limit the number of elementary teachers prepared based on supply-and-demand calculations, so as to offer better experiences for a smaller number of candidates.

While such alignment may be possible with shortage fields such as secondary math and science and special education, Ms. Wineburg said, the need for elementary educators is more susceptible to factors such as crimped budgets.

“Look at what happened with the economy. The projections went right out the window; teachers weren’t retiring, and there were no jobs,” she noted. “To predict how many teachers a school district is going to need is a guessing game every year.”

In the report’s appendix, many institutions that were reviewed contested their ratings. Several, like Ms. Cutler of Montclair State, said that their mentor-selection criteria merely were not detailed on paper.

Montclair State trains mentor-teachers through a series of modules and selects them following detailed conversations between faculty and principals, but doesn’t document them in the way required by the council, Ms. Cutler contended.

“We didn’t use the magic words they require,” she said.

Though largely critical of student-teaching, the report also highlights preparation programs it says exhibited good practices for student-teaching.

The program at Furman University, a liberal arts college located in Greenville, S.C., was one of 10 programs to earn a “model” rating by the council. As part of its student-teaching, a university supervisor visits each candidate on a weekly basis. And districts give mentor-teachers release time to attend to teacher-candidates, said Nelly Hecker, the director of teacher education at Furman.

“The student-teaching experience keeps people going—or not,” Ms. Hecker said. “A horrible student-teaching experience is not going to motivate a young person to stay in the field, so the role of the cooperating teacher is very important.”

Ms. Hecker added that she had good exchanges with the council during the review.

For her part, Ms. Walsh said she hopes the report will help generate conversations about improving student-teaching among influential groups such as the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which has announced plans to upgrade its own standards as it merges with another accrediting body. (“Merger Lies Ahead for Accrediting Bodies of Teacher Preparation,” Nov. 3, 2010.)

While supportive of efforts to lengthen student-teaching, she said programs must also be more purposeful about its features. “I think we run the risk of being only worried about adding more hours to student-teaching, and not paying enough attention to what happens in each of those hours,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2011 edition of Education Week

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