Teacher Preparation

Teacher Prep, Reading Skills Tied Together

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 14, 2003 4 min read
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Investing in high-quality teacher-preparation programs for reading teachers could lead to higher student achievement in the subject, concludes the final report of a commission that has studied the issue over the past three years.

A summary of the longitudinal study “Prepared to Make a Difference,” will be available in the coming weeks from the International Reading Association.

New elementary school teachers who were well- prepared in preservice programs to teach reading expressed greater confidence in their knowledge and skills, fostered richer literacy environments in their classrooms, and helped their pupils achieve higher levels of reading comprehension than did other teachers, according to the National Commission on Excellence in Elementary Teacher Preparation in Reading Instruction.

“Teachers—not the instructional method or the materials—are crucial to promoting student learning,” says the report, titled “Prepared to Make a Difference.”

“If more of America’s teachers entered the profession with [the] competence and self-assuredness [of the graduates of exemplary programs],” it argues, “it would make a profound difference to students as they learn to read.”

The report, released here last week at the annual conference of the International Reading Association, was touted as the first longitudinal study to document the specific elements of effective preservice programs in reading. It was also described as one of the first to follow teachers from their undergraduate programs through their first three years of teaching.

The IRA convened the commission of 10 education professors in 1999 to address the dearth of research on the components of effective programs for preparing the nation’s reading teachers.

Common Characteristics

The commission surveyed nearly 1,000 reading teacher- educators to determine common practices in preparing reading teachers. It selected eight teacher-preparation programs with an intense focus on reading that the panel deemed exemplary.

Next, the panelists looked for common characteristics that contributed to the programs’ success in preparing teachers.

From that study, the commission identified eight critical features of excellent programs: a comprehensive curriculum that helps students acquire a cohesive knowledge base on literacy; field experiences related to coursework; a vision of literacy and high-quality teaching and preparation; sufficient resources to support the program’s mission; teaching personalized to the individual needs of preservice teachers; autonomy of teacher education programs within institutions; a learning community among faculty, students, and mentor teachers; and continual assessment of students, the program, and faculty.

The study also compared the effectiveness of the programs’ graduates with that of other new teachers—about 100 in all. The students of teachers who had completed the exemplary programs were more likely to be exposed to a rich and well-planned text environment in the classroom and to have the kinds of literary experiences that researchers believe lead to reading proficiency.

“Reading achievement is higher among students engaged in the high-quality reading activities that those teachers provide,” said Cathy M. Roller, the IRA’s research director.

Commission members lamented, however, that such exemplary programs are rare.

“These qualities do not characterize most teacher-preparation programs,” said James V. Hoffman, a professor of language and literacy studies at the University of Texas at Austin and the chairman of the commission. “This is not the time to defend the status quo. This is the time for reform.”

At a time when many federal and state initiatives are requiring evidence of the effectiveness of various reading materials and methods of instruction, experts have pointed to a lack of research on the best ways to prepare teachers to teach reading.

Mr. Hoffman acknowledged the study has its limitations—a meager amount of empirical data and a high rate of refusal among district officials to test students in the classrooms of the new teachers that were followed, for instance. But he said he hoped it would fuel additional studies.

Some experts pointed to what they see as critical flaws in the study’s methodology.

The eight exemplary programs, for example, were not selected based on measurable characteristics and were not necessarily reflective of the 1,400 programs nationwide, according to Susan B. Neuman, an expert on reading who stepped down earlier this year as the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

A flawed report, Ms. Neuman said, is not necessarily better than nothing. “There is a tremendous call for high-quality research based on very careful sampling techniques and strategies,” she said. “Everything else must be considered highly speculative.”

Ms. Roller conceded that the report would not likely silence critics of the association or those who adhere to what the group sees as a narrow definition of effective research. Still, she said, it is valuable to a field that has just begun to study itself. “This report goes so much further than any other study in looking at what makes for an effective teacher- preparation program in reading,” she argued. “These are powerful findings, but there is more to be done.”

The researchers studied exemplary programs at City University of New York Hunter College; Florida International University, Miami; Indiana University Bloomington and Indianapolis; Norfolk State University, Virginia; University of Nevada-Reno; University of Sioux Falls, South Dakota; the University of Texas at Austin; and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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