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Teacher-prep programs get poor grades in new survey

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 18, 2013: A new nationwide survey that rates teacher-preparation programs gave many of them poor grades, saying that they are doing a dismal job in preparing a new generation of classroom leaders at a time when schools are developing more rigorous courses of study.

Some programs in Missouri and Illinois were singled out for excellence by the National Council on Teacher Quality; others received the opposite judgment and were not recommended because of how they prepared would-be teachers.

Among the best programs in the bi-state area were those at Missouri State University in Springfield and Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, plus programs at both the Edwardsville and Carbondale campuses of Southern Illinois University.

At the other end of the spectrum, the council said that the program at Harris-Stowe State University to train elementary school teachers was subpar for a variety of reasons, including the content of its courses, the lack of selectivity in choosing students and shortcomings in its student teaching program.

It was one of three programs in the state that got a consumer alert, along with programs at Missouri Baptist University and Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph. Four Illinois programs received the alert, none of them downstate.

Overall, according to council president Kate Walsh, teacher preparation programs are falling far short of what schools need in the 200,000 new teachers that graduate each year, particularly those who are hired to work in urban classrooms with challenging students.

“They need to be classroom-ready on day one,” she said in a conference call with reporters. “Unfortunately, students who are most in need of talented teachers are most likely to be assigned first-year teachers….

“There is very little imparting by institutions of the specific knowledge and skills that will prepare teachers to teach on day one.”

The council cited many education leaders who endorsed the report, whose findings will be published in U.S. News and World Report. The magazine already attracts attention – positive and negative – for its school ratings. Walsh said she hopes people use the ratings of teacher-prep programs as a consumer guide, and she hopes schools use it as a roadmap to improvement.

LaTisha Smith, dean of the Harris-Stowe college of education, said that the only thing the council ever asked her for was syllabi for education courses. Based on that kind of information, she did not see how it could make the negative judgments that it did.

Asked about areas where the survey said Harris-Stowe’s program for elementary school teachers deserved no credit – including math, student teaching, struggling readers – she said that in each case, the council did not have enough data to make an educated decision.

“I’m having a hard time understanding how you can judge this institution’s education programs when the only thing you have ever asked me for is syllabi,” Smith said. “That’s like my saying can you send me five pictures of your kids and maybe some awards they’ve won and I’ll make all sorts of judgments about your family, without ever talking to them or talking to your neighbors.

“I’m still taken aback by this process.”

In one area, the selectivity of the students going into teaching, Smith said that it was particularly unfair to judge Harris-Stowe, which has an open enrollment policy, against other colleges that don’t.

“We’re just saying that we have a lot of things to be proud of with our teacher education program at Harris-Stowe,” Smith said. “That is what we were founded on, and that is what we are standing on.”

Other critics said the report may not have measured what really needs to be highlighted when judging the quality of a teacher-preparation program.

“We certainly appreciate their drawing attention to the fact that teachers need to be well-prepared to enter the classroom,” said Gale “Hap” Hairston, director of educator preparation in the office of educator quality for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“But,” he told the Beacon, “at times I think we may disagree with some of the standards they use. The institutions they question may have very fine qualities, but they just don’t match the rubric that the NCTQ uses in its rating system.”

He noted that Missouri has instituted programs to evaluate teachers on the job as well as those who want to go into teaching.

Carole Basile, dean of the school of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that whether people agree with the individual ratings or not, the fact remains “that we need to change the way we prepare teachers. We still have to figure it out. And we can’t keep blaming teacher ed, either.”

As far as what the ratings mean, Basile wasn’t all that sure.

“Now what?” she asked. “How will these ratings help? The question is how helpful is it, and I don’t find it to be that helpful at this juncture.”

‘The results were dismal’

Walsh said the review looked at teacher-prep programs at more than 1,100 colleges and universities nationwide, with the goal of trying to figure out which ones were doing well and which were falling short, so prospective teachers could figure out where they would be well trained.

In a statement accompanying the results, she said:

“If we really want to help all teachers succeed, we not only need to change what happens in the schools where they work, we must also address the preparation of the next generation of teachers. With the advent of the Common Core State Standards, the bar in this country is being raised on students, requiring the highest quality teacher preparation. What may have worked even five or ten years ago in teacher prep has to be re-evaluated….

“By giving consumers the power to make more informed choices, we can help them become the engine for driving change. As we’ve seen in most other sectors, informed consumers are hard to ignore.”

Summing up the report in four words, Walsh told reporters:

“The results were dismal.”

The council suggested a number of steps for the teacher-preparation programs to improve, including:

  • Make it tougher to get into a teacher preparation program.
  • Make it tougher to be recommended for licensure.
  • Hold programs accountable for the effectiveness of their graduates by using data.
  • Make program approval — and re-approval — contingent on passing rigorous on-site inspections.
  • Require institutions to place student teachers only with classroom teachers deemed to be effective.
  • Base state funding for institutions on the quality of their teacher preparation.
  • Set a limit on the number of licenses in each teaching area to be issued each year.
  • Lower tuition for high-need areas such as special education and STEM preparation programs.

Walsh said she was not trying to attack schools of education, but she wanted to let anyone who planned to be a teacher know where the training was most rigorous and most helpful.
“There are a lot of really great teachers who come out of these programs,” she said. “The wrong message for you to get today is that an institution is turning out bad teachers if they got low rankings from us.

“We think it’s possible to raise the bar for all programs, including those that are already being selective. They have solved only one part of the puzzle. They are recruiting high-caliber individuals, but they are not providing the experience that students need.”

Besides making sure that programs improve, Walsh said that the number of schools that prepare teachers is too large, and the methods they use are too diverse.

“By any measure,” she added, “we have too many ed schools. There’s no system that brings any coherence to what they are doing. Each one of those institutions has multiple programs.

“We found nothing in common between what one program on a campus requires and what another one requires. An undergraduate elementary program may have no relationship to the graduate elementary program. That makes no sense.”

Walsh said the council plans to do the research for the ratings every year, but she said no one should stop with what the survey has found.

“This is not a very deep look into the quality of each program at a level that anyone should be completely satisfied,” She said. “We have scratched an inch deep into the surface of these programs, but just going that deep, we find fundamental flaws and weaknesses. I wonder if you went a lot deeper what you would find.”

Going to court

One factor that set Missouri apart in the council's survey was the fact that the council had to file suit to get copies of the syllabus used in education courses at the four campuses of the University of Missouri.

Walsh said that in nine states, efforts to get such syllabi were met with resistance and the council had to hire attorneys. In six of those states, she said, institutions gave in and surrendered the documents. In another, New Jersey, instead of pursuing a legal challenge, the council persuaded students to give them the course information they were looking for.

But in Missouri and Minnesota, she said, the effort ended up in court. The council won the Minnesota case, but the state is appealing. The Missouri case is set for a hearing in Boone County Circuit Court in Columbia on Friday.

The schools have argued that the syllabi are not subject to open records law because they are intellectual property of the professors who create them and should not have to be turned over.

Basile, at UMSL, said that the situation put the university’s colleges of education “kind of between a rock and a hard place. The faculty chose at a system level that syllabi were intellectual property. I know that there were people who weren’t happy with the council’s methods. The research about what they were looking for was kind of mysterious. There was a lot of angst about the whole process and the way they were getting information.”

John Fougere, spokesman for the University of Missouri system, said he could not speak specifically to the syllabi issue because it is still in court. In general, he said in an email:

“I would say that this is one organization’s opinion and not a regulatory body. Our students are able to find jobs and continue to make meaningful contributions to education — not only in Missouri but throughout the nation. We are very proud of the rigor and diversity of our offerings and believe that our increasing enrollment reflects that students value the educational opportunities offered at our institution.”

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