Teacher Preparation

Teaching Programs Fall Short on Reading Instruction, Review Claims

By Sarah Schwartz — June 13, 2023 5 min read
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Three of 4 elementary teacher-preparation programs don’t adequately cover all the core components of reading instruction—and many still teach methods that run counter to evidence-based practice, a new review concludes.

The review, from the research and policy group the National Council on Teacher Quality, analyzed syllabi, textbooks, and other course materials from 693 teacher-preparation programs across the United States.

The results show that many programs have room to improve—both in the knowledge they teach preservice educators, and in the opportunities these future teachers have to practice specific skills related to reading instruction, said Heather Peske, the president of the NCTQ.

“We know that in this country, too many kids aren’t learning to read. And we also know that teacher preparation is being overlooked as a way to change that,” Peske said. “Legislators, in particular, are looking more at K-12 teachers and trying to build their capacity, rather than looking more preventatively at building the capacity of teachers entering the profession.”

Over the past decade, 31 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or implemented new policies mandating evidence-based reading instruction. This legislative trend has ramped up over the past few years, as advocates and policymakers have embraced the “science of reading” movement.

Which States Have Passed 'Science of Reading' Laws?

Over the past few years, more states have passed laws or implemented new policies related to evidence-based reading instruction. Look below to see which states have such legislation and when it passed.

Click here to learn more about each state’s legislation or policy.

But while school districts have been directed to overhaul their curriculum materials and retrain teachers, universities typically have more autonomy over the courses they teach and the philosophies of reading instruction that they promote.

The NCTQ sides with those advocates who cite this as a major problem: Programs, it says, are graduating teacher candidates who aren’t equipped to teach students how to read.

Still, the NCTQ’s rating system, which relies on course syllabi and other written materials—readings, lecture slides, example assignments or assessments—has now been criticized for a decade.

“Their methodology, for me, is still significantly flawed,” said Annamarie Francois, the associate dean of public engagement at the University of California, Los Angeles’ School of Education and Information Studies. UCLA’s graduate teacher preparation program received a D grade in the NCTQ analysis.

“Anytime that you base ratings on a review of documents, rather than actual practice and student outcomes, then you aren’t actually capturing the full knowledge and understanding of teacher candidates,” Francois said.

A syllabus doesn’t capture everything that happens in a class. But it is a strong indicator of the topics that students will learn and the degree to which they are covered, countered Nicole Gerber, NCTQ’s director of strategic communications, in an email.

Fewer than 40 percent of programs receive an A or B grade

The new report marks the third time NCTQ reviewed teacher preparation programs with attention to reading instruction. Its first report, in 2013, gave 35 percent of programs an A or B grade; that percentage jumped to 51 in 2020.

But this report uses a new methodology—a shift prompted by input from the field—and the results can’t be compared directly to those in years past. This time around, only 38 percent of programs received an A or B grade.

Like in past reports, a group of reviewers examined course outlines, materials, and assessments for coverage of the five components of literacy identified in the National Reading Panel Report: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. (Reviewers included teacher educators, researchers, and developers of commercial professional learning programs.)

This time they required that programs devote more class time to the five components. Programs were more likely to fully cover some components than others—NCTQ found that most adequately covered comprehension, for example, but not phonemic awareness.

The review also examines the extent to which programs prepare teachers to meet the needs of specific student groups—English learners, speakers of English dialects, and struggling readers—though these analyses don’t factor into program ratings.

Under the new methodology, reviewers also examined whether programs taught strategies that reviewers said weren’t research-backed. Programs that did were docked points.

Some of these “contrary practices,” as the report calls them, rely on approaches to reading instruction that minimize the importance of the word-decoding skills that are foundational to successful reading. (For more on these practices, including the “three cueing system,” see here.)

The new NCTQ criteria also asked for evidence that looked for whether prospective teachers received specific practice opportunities for each of the components—asking students to develop and teach sample lessons, for example, or administer and analyze assessments. (These were practice opportunities within courses, rather than general student teaching requirements.) Thirty percent provided no such opportunities.

Academic freedom vs. strict standards

By its very nature, the NCTQ’s review challenges some commonly held tenets of teacher preparation programs.

Teacher candidates are often taught a variety of approaches and philosophies, and encouraged to think of all of these as different tools in their toolbox. Opportunities for student teaching can vary widely depending on where students are placed, and their mentor teacher’s methods.

But the NCTQ review makes the case that all programs should give students the same toolbox, one with strategies validated by experimental research. States have a “moral obligation” to hold programs to this standard, Peske said.

The report praises Colorado and Mississippi, two states that introduced stricter guidelines for evaluating teacher-preparation programs.

“The standards aren’t suggestions. They’re requirements,” said Mary Bivens, the executive director of the Educator Workforce Development Unit at the Colorado Department of Education. While university faculty have academic freedom, there are certain components that approved licensure programs have to cover to retain their status, Bivens said.

Teacher candidates need to come out of programs understanding that using research-based practices “is the way to teach reading in Colorado,” she said. “Not an option, but the way.”

Some of the programs reviewed by NCTQ said its review process is biased.

“I have no evidence that these things have been debunked,” said Elizabeth Moje, the dean of the Marsal Family School of Education at the University of Michigan, in reference to NCTQ’s list of contrary practices. The school’s undergraduate program received a D grade.

She also said that excluding student teaching from practice opportunities provided an inaccurate representation of the university’s program.

“Our students are in clinical practice from day one of their programs,” Moje said. This time spent teaching alongside experienced educators prepares candidates for their work in the classroom, and should count toward a practice requirement, she said.

“We get feedback from actual practitioners, superintendents, principals, that presents a very different picture of what our interns are able to do,” Moje added.

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