Room for Improvement



How can we expect A+ teachers from C- training programs?

By Suzanne Weiss

The nation’s colleges and   universities are under mounting pressure to do a better job of training prospective teachers—and, for the first time ever, to prove they are doing it.

Over the years, attempts to reform teacher preparation programs have been largely unfocused and piecemeal, and yielded little in the way of real change and improvement.

But this time, the pressure is coming all at once—from states, the federal government and even from within the profession itself—in the form of wide-ranging policy initiatives aimed at boosting the performance of the 1,200-plus programs that turn out roughly a quarter-million new teachers each year.

And the consequences for programs that fail to measure up are unprecedented: loss of accreditation, state-ordered shutdown and the possible denial of federal financial aid to the students they enroll.

All Eyes on the Board

“There is a lot of attention focused on this issue, and I think it is ripe for action,” says Representative Alice Piesch (D), House chair of the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education.

Massachusetts is one of seven states in the process of overhauling its teacher preparation and licensing systems under a two-year pilot project created by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

Idaho is also one of the seven, and Representative Wendy Horman (R) believes it’s a good first step toward finding real solutions. “I have appreciated being involved in Idaho’s conversation around teacher preparation,” she says. “As legislators, the more we understand and study the system—and the impact of our decisions—the more progress we have made toward solutions.”

The goal of the pilot project is to show how state leaders can drive reform: raising admission standards for teacher-preparation programs, making licensure contingent on prospective teachers’ demonstration of specific skills, and revamping the way states evaluate and certify programs. Other states participating in the initiative are Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Washington.

Dovetailing with the project are two other significant initiatives aimed squarely at reforming and improving teacher training.

The Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation has a set of proposed standards for teacher prep programs that would for the first time require accredited programs to be more selective in admitting students; specifically, only those with a collective 3.0 grade-point average or better, and scores in the top third on national tests like the ACT or the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The standards include improved practice teaching programs and better analysis of their effectiveness in terms of graduation rates, completion of licensing requirements, and satisfaction among both graduates and the school districts that employ them.

Beginning in 2016, teacher prep programs would be put on probation if they fall below the threshold in one of five standards, and would be denied accreditation for falling below it in two or more standards.

The Federal “Solution”

And from the federal government comes newly proposed rules for evaluating all teacher preparation programs in the nation, using metrics that could include the number of graduates placed in schools, as well as pass rates on licensing exams, teacher retention rates and job performance ratings of teachers.

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the effort is aimed at pushing states to do a better job identifying programs that perform at a high level, and to shut down the weakest programs. He noted that more than half of the states hadn’t rated even one of their teacher prep programs as subpar in the past 10 years.

The new federal regulations—which will be phased in over several years—will likely preclude federal financial aid to students enrolled in low-performing programs.

And that’s not a good way to hold programs accountable, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE). The advocacy group for teacher preparation schools argues that the federal proposal is an example of federal over-reach at its worst, and would only “draw energy, funding and attention away from innovative reforms, proven accountability initiatives and overall program improvements currently happening in teacher preparation programs across the country.”

The federal proposal “falls far short” of containing many of the characteristics the group believes needs to be in any good accountability reform: fairness, transparency, validity, reliability, feasibility and usefulness.  The organization argues the federal proposal is unworkable and unproved, and would, among other things, raise privacy concerns and place new burdens on overworked teachers and principals.

Serious Shortcomings

“The administration is calling the question here, and it could not be more important,” says Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University. He’s been a leading critic of the track record on preparing teachers for more than 10 years, charging education schools with being merely “cash cows,” forced to enroll too many students and lower admission standards.

“There are excellent teacher education programs in America, but far too many are poor,” Levine says. “These programs need to be strengthened or closed, and states need to jump-start the process.”

Critics believe the nation’s teacher-training system is antiquated, insular and too fiercely protective of the status quo. According to them, preparation programs have the following serious shortcomings:

  • Only about 25 percent of them limit admission to students in the top half of their high school class.
  • They graduate roughly twice as many teachers as the nation actually needs.
  • They overproduce elementary school teachers, and don’t turn out nearly enough teachers of math, science, bilingual education and special education.
  • They typically do not work collaboratively with school districts that employ their graduates or in which novices do their practice teaching.
  • The attrition rate of beginning teachers is troublingly high, with roughly one in three quitting within five years.
  • The vast majority of programs do not train prospective educators to teach reading based on the latest research.
  • Few adequately prepare teachers in classroom management, effective discipline and the use of varied assessments.

States Seek Best and Brightest

The growing dissatisfaction with how teachers are trained has lawmakers’ attention. The Rhode Island General Assembly, for example, will require schools of education, by 2016, to admit students with a mean SAT, ACT or GRE score in the top one-half of the nation—and in the top one-third by 2020.

In Delaware, new legislation requires prospective teachers to have at least a 3.0 grade-point average or demonstrate “mastery” results on college entrance exams before they are admitted to a preparation program.

Ten states have created mechanisms for connecting K-12 student achievement with teacher preparation programs. “We’ve been providing programs with ‘batch data’ for several years,” says Representative Harry Brooks (R), who chairs the Tennessee House Education Committee. “Now we’re working on individualizing the data so that they can look at the performance of each graduate.”

As of the start of this year, 17 states require specially designed assessments of prospective elementary school teachers to ensure that they understand effective reading instruction.

Wisconsin is one of those states, where a passing score on the reading assessment is a requirement for licensure. “A couple of years ago, our third grade reading scores were falling in national rankings—not so much because we had gotten worse, but because other states had really improved,” recalls Senator Luther Olsen (R), chair of the Wisconsin Senate Education Committee. “We looked at evidence that our teachers weren’t being prepared to teach reading, so we adopted the Read to Lead assessment program, which is modeled on what several other states are doing.”

The new policy requires teacher preparation programs to report their graduates’ scores on the reading test the first time they take it, Olsen says.

Read to Lead is among several policy changes that Wisconsin has made, or is considering, to improve teacher training. One noteworthy effort, Olsen says, is Wisconsin’s participation in the multistate edTPA pilot project, a performance-based assessment designed by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education to answer the essential question of whether new teachers are ready for the job. Good preparation is the “bedrock of effective teaching,” says Sharon Robinson, president and CEO of the  association, which is, according to its website, committed to “strengthening the preparation of school personnel.”

 States are rapidly innovating to ensure that teachers are student-ready when they complete their preparation programs.  Innovations such as EdTPA—a valid and reliable teacher performance assessment—are excellent measures for state legislators to consider as they answer the question for taxpayers How do I know a new teacher is ready for the classroom?

Much to Be Done

“We’ve been looking around at the top-performing school systems in the world, like Finland, and it’s clear that their teacher education programs are key to their success,” Olsen says. “But you also can’t help noticing that so much of what they do—in terms of selecting and training teachers, how much teachers are paid, the quality of professional development—is just the opposite of how we do things here.”

Like Olsen, Tennessee’s Brooks says he thinks state policymakers have come to realize that many of the shortcomings of the K-12 education system can be traced directly to the deficiencies of teacher training programs.

“Clearly, there’s a need to do a better job on the front end,” Brooks says, “and the general trend is moving in that direction.”

Senator Joyce Elliott (D) of Arkansas agrees. “There’s much more political will to improve preparation programs than in the past,” Elliott says. As a long-time teacher, Elliott knows the issue “is fraught with practical problems. You can find yourself in the wilderness pretty quickly.”

In Elliott’s view, it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that “we have to change the conditions in which teachers work.”

In Finland and other high-performing countries, she says, “they grow students into great teachers. Here in this country, we have not created the right atmosphere for teachers to thrive. There’s much to be fixed with teacher preparation, but we’re deluding ourselves if we think that is the only thing that needs to be done.

“Yes, we need to build better teachers, but we also need to be building better principals, better schools, better parents and better communities.

Common Core Concerns

The Council of Chief State School Officers launched a pilot project last year amid rising concern over newly minted teachers’ readiness to implement the Common Core standards in K-12 mathematics and language arts that 43 states are fully implementing.

According to some estimates, fewer than a third of all training programs for prospective high school teachers—and even fewer elementary-education training programs—are preparing their enrollees adequately to translate the new standards into practice.

“In general, teacher preparation programs are not incorporating Common Core standards into their curriculum,” says Catherine Gewertz, an assistant editor of Education Week who has written extensively on the issue over the past two years. “What we often hear is that they feel it’s not their job to prepare teachers for a specific set of standards.”

At the same time, a new generation of assessments measuring students’ mastery of the Common Core standards—set to begin this year—is expected to pose significant hurdles. But concerns over the quality of teacher preparation programs go well beyond their lack of alignment with more-rigorous standards and assessments, says Chris Minnich, executive director of CCSSO, adding: “Whether or not we have Common Core, these programs need to be fixed.”

Suzanne Weiss is a frequent freelance contributor to State Legislatures magazine.

Ideas From Abroad

During a two-week trip to China, members of NCSL’s Study Group on International Education toured schools and met with officials in Beijing and Shanghai to learn about education policy and initiatives in China. The bipartisan group of 28 legislators and six legislative staff with expertise, experience and interest in education is studying the teaching methods and educational strategies used in some of the top performing countries around the world to discover what might work back home.

Members of the group are focusing on these specific questions:

  • What is working in other countries and why?
  • What can states learn from these experiences?
  • What is unique to these countries?
  • What fundamental principles support reform in successful countries and are relevant for states?
  • What are opportunities and roadblocks for states in pursuing education reform?

The group is planning other educational trips as well, possibly to Singapore, Finland and Canada.

—Julie Bell, NCSL

Additional Resources