Seeking Better Data on Teacher Prep

April 30, 2010

WASHINGTON – Associations, accreditors and scholars have issued report after report proposing ways to improve teacher preparation, but a high-profile federal study released Thursday urges the U.S. Department of Education and states to collect more data on teachers and their routes to the classroom before initiating widespread reform of education schools and alternative routes to certification.

Published by the National Research Council and funded by the Education Department's Institute of Education Sciences, the report, “Preparing Teachers: Building Evidence for Sound Policy,” calls on the department to facilitate a national system for tracking data on teacher education and to commission a study to make sense of the varying standards that exist for accreditation and state approval.

It’s a none-of-the-above response to a charge given to the study’s authors -- the Committee on the Study of Teacher Preparation Programs in the United States, which is a panel of 17 education experts, mostly university faculty -- by Congress: to collect and analyze data and research on undergraduate and graduate teacher preparation programs, as well as alternative routes to certification. The committee also set out to determine whether teachers of reading, math and science were well-prepared for their jobs.

“Because of the paucity of systematic research as well as the enormous variation in virtually all aspects of teacher education programs and pathways,” the committee concluded, “we cannot draw any specific conclusions about the characteristics of current teacher preparation programs.”

“It seemed so simple and straightforward to answer these questions,” said the committee’s chair, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, a research professor at Bard College’s Levy Economics Institute and former dean of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

But it wasn’t. “At a time that people care a lot about education and want to improve it, there is so little known about teacher preparation at a national level,” she said. “Strong policy has to be built on strong evidence and we don’t have strong evidence.”

The committee calls for research that would compare programs’ selectivity, timing and characteristics, as well as various means of teaching classroom management skills and how to teach a wide range of students, to help determine the essential components of teacher preparation programs.

Though there is some research comparing outcomes for teachers who have emerged from undergraduate, graduate and alternative certification programs, the report argues that scholars and policy makers need more information to fairly assess programs’ merits.

“Is there a difference between traditional teacher education in colleges and universities and alternative routes like Teach for America or New York City Teaching Fellows?” Lagemann asked. “Supposedly, in everyday thinking, those two things are quite different, but in reality the differences between various alternative programs can be just as great.”

Not everyone on the committee agreed with the approach taken in the report. In a one-page dissent, Michael J. Podgursky, a professor of economics at the University of Missouri at Columbia, said the committee was “not asked to make recommendations about how teachers ought to be prepared or the necessary preparation of teachers” but to “assess available data on teacher preparation programs … and whether the training teachers receive is consistent with scientifically based research.” The committee was right, he added, in suggesting that more data be collected, but missed the mark with “rather nebulous language used to describe elements of … a database [that] are not helpful or practical.”

Accreditation standards for programs vary state by state and often rely on a mix of state-determined requirements, one or more regional accrediting bodies, and the criteria set forth by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education or the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, the two national accreditors of teacher preparation programs.

Because “the existing evidence does not support a strong conclusion about the effectiveness of the current accountability process in teacher education,” as the report put it, the committee asks the Education Department to sponsor an independent study of accreditation and state approval processes, which could, Lagemann said, lead to “one system of accountability across the country.”

“Making sense of the accreditation system really went beyond our charge, but we had to mention it,” Lagemann added. “Once we figure out what works in teacher preparation, it could be a lever of improvement. It has been in other fields.”

Though NCATE, the body that accredits the largest number of education programs nationwide, provided data to the committee, its officials were not included in the deliberations that led to the production of the report. Nor were the major teachers' unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, or other groups that have spoken out on reforming teacher preparation, like the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

“We’re going to get pushback from everywhere,” Lagemann said. “There’s traditionally resistance from unions, schools of education, from all over, to having these questions asked.”

James G. Cibulka, the president of NCATE, said in a statement that his group “endorses the need for more focus on student outcomes, both in policy and research, as a barometer of teaching effectiveness and preparation program quality.” He also noted that “NCATE has called for uniform accountability and quality control processes for all pathways into teaching and has initiated efforts to accredit high quality non-collegiate providers.”

Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, said the report is accurate in highlighting “the absence of data to answer the basic questions about how well we’re doing in preparing teachers.”

But there is also enough information available, from examinations of many successful programs and schools, to reach some conclusions about what works and what doesn't. "We know we're moving toward a new system of education that's outcome-based, increasingly individual and accountability driven," he said. "The teacher is going to have to be a diagnostician of what the student needs and how the student learns; a prescriptor of how the student should go about learning; an assessor of student progress and achievement and outcomes."

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