Reviewing (or Trashing?) Student Teaching

A sure-to-be-controversial new study from the National Council on Teacher Quality – the same group that developed the heavily criticized methodology U.S.

July 21, 2011

A sure-to-be-controversial new study from the National Council on Teacher Quality – the same group that developed the heavily criticized methodology U.S. News & World Report will use for its new teacher education program rankings -- determined that fully three-fourths of student teaching programs, including ones at top education programs like Vanderbilt and New York Universities, are inadequate.

The ratings depend to a great degree on the role the program plays in selecting the cooperating teacher, something many programs prefer to do in partnership with the school rather than for it -- but the NCTQ believes colleges must manage directly for every teacher. Four of the five “critical” standards relate either directly to the qualities of the cooperating teacher or to the role the college plays in selecting him or her, and while all 134 programs were measured up against those five standards, to make the study more manageable, only 32 of them were measured against all 19 standards.

Those critical standards are: the 10-week student teaching experience should include at least five weeks at a single school site and represent a full-time commitment; the teacher preparation program must select the cooperating teacher for each student teacher placement; and, constituting the final three standards, the cooperating teacher candidate must have at least three years of teaching experience, the capacity to have a positive impact on student learning, and the capacity to mentor an adult, with skills in observation, providing feedback, holding professional conversations and working collaboratively.

The standards NCTQ developed to measure student teaching programs – and the results they yielded – are a glimpse into what education deans can expect to see in the forthcoming U.S. News rankings. While those will consider the entire programs, the student teaching findings will be factored in.

Educators said the standards for U.S. News were generally too narrow, but another major point of contention was the council’s decision to rank institutions even when they opt out, meaning it would have to make some assumptions about data it didn’t have. For this study, institutions were not allowed to opt out, and evaluations were based on available information, but there were some holes when the researchers did not get the data they needed.

NCTQ’s 19 new student teaching standards actually highlight efforts that many teacher education groups have emphasized: a focus on clinical practice (though NCTQ says this is useless if the quality standards are not met), partnerships between colleges and school districts, and serving special-needs schools. But NCTQ's guidelines often don’t go far enough or go in the wrong direction, said Sharon P. Robinson, CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

As an example, Robinson cited the final standard, which says teacher preparation should have criteria that favor placing student teachers in elementary schools (the only type of K-12 school included in the study) where “they have an opportunity to teach children from low-income families” and where there is an “orderly learning environment.” But while low-income communities are critical, Robinson said, students should also be prepared to teach populations like English language learners and special-needs students.

Robinson and others also took issue with the assertion that the college itself should select each cooperating teacher for every student, saying it should instead be a partnership based on what the school needs and what the students have to offer. While colleges typically review schools as sites for student teaching, many rely on school personnel to select teachers. But NCTQ calculates that only one of every 25 teachers is willing and qualified to mentor a student teacher -- making for an annual shortage of 40,000 qualified cooperating teachers.

“The field is moving itself almost in spite of this reliable course of critique that wants to find us wanting,” Robinson said. “What NCTQ has done once again is start out with a methodology in mind, ask an interesting question, conduct a review that is not in the least transparent, and then offer some findings. It is clear to me these findings are not the findings that will add to and hasten, or even leverage, the reform efforts that are underway. These findings are a distraction.”

But Kate Walsh, NCTQ president, said that Robinson and others should be using the findings to identify room for improvement, not just waving them off. Walsh acknowledged that NCTQ is “critical” of teacher preparation, but not unreasonably, she said. “We have laid out a very clear set of standards that can only lead to one conclusion when you read them. That teacher preparation does matter, and it matters most when it’s done well,” she said. “It’s puzzling to me that the response to this work is that it’s not really needed…. The proper response to a low rating is, ‘We could do better.’ Not, ‘Oh my gosh, we have no room to improve, we’re already fabulous.' ”

Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York system, which graduates 5,000 teachers a year, has publicly protested the U.S. News methodology, and in February informed the magazine that she, along with the chancellors of the California State and University System of Maryland systems, had advised their institutions against participating in the review until their concerns were addressed. In a statement sent to Inside Higher Ed on Wednesday, she again questioned NCTQ’s processes.

“The methodology used by NCTQ failed to effectively incorporate significant input from the community of university and practicing professionals with a history of successful teacher preparation, and it ignored tried-and-true assessment measures,” Zimpher said. “This fatally flawed survey represents a missed opportunity to serve the public with a genuine, accurate, and useful analysis of teacher education programs. Teachers, students, and the greater American public deserve better."

All things considered, NCTQ recommended that, to create a better-quality experience for the teachers and the students, and to reduce the number of new graduates without jobs, teacher preparation programs shrink the pipeline of student teachers and focus the student teaching placement process on the selection of exemplary cooperating teachers; and that institutions make the role of cooperating teacher a more attractive opportunity, by offering either more money or more recognition.

Examining a random sample of 134 of the country’s 1,400 institutions that place student teachers in the classroom, NCTQ found only 10 model programs, which “require that cooperating teachers are fully qualified and also actively participate in the selection of cooperating teachers.” Those programs include Florida Gulf Coast, Furman and Oklahoma State Universities, and Bridgewater and Wheelock Colleges, among others.

Far more institutions did not fare well. Half of them were “weak” and 25 percent were “poor,” NCTQ said; the rest were “good.”

To determine the ratings, NCTQ examined documents from institutions and school districts relating to the selection and responsibilities of cooperating teachers and placement coordinators, contracts governing student teaching arrangements, and any documented guidance for student teachers in the classroom. Researchers also invited institutions to submit additional documents that might help. They surveyed local principals and conducted five site visits.

Despite her program's being rated as “weak,” Kay Persichitte, dean of the University of Wyoming College of Education, actually agrees with and supports four out of the five critical standards (like Robinson, she believes the selection of the cooperating teacher should be a joint decision between the school and college) – and that is reflected in the college’s operations, she said. Her comments echoed Robinson’s concern about the lack of transparency.

“Our elementary and secondary education programs, if evaluated on relevant documentation, we would fully meet four of the five,” Persichitte said. “Either the documentation that they chose to review, or the methods that they used to select the documentation for review, does not even closely reflect what happens at the University of Wyoming College of Education.”

Among the sample institutions, all required at least 10 weeks of experience, and 75 percent required student teaching to take place near their campus. Nearly 100 percent required full-time student teaching, and 91 percent prohibited extra coursework. When it came to choosing the district teachers, though, more than 80 percent required cooperating teachers to be experienced, but only 28 percent required them to be effective. Fifty-four percent of school principals surveyed said the college they partner with has no criteria for the quality of the cooperating teacher.

By NCTQ’s estimates, teacher education is producing 77,000 teachers annually who are hired immediately after completing their program – less than half of the students who graduate. (Walsh says this is evidence that many students who obtain teaching certificates never intend to enter the profession.) Because of this, and because university presidents will be reticent to enroll fewer students into “cash cow” teacher preparation programs, the report says, school districts should limit the number of student teachers it takes on. They should allow only cooperating teachers with at least three years’ experience and who fall in the top 25-percent at their school, and who “either have strong mentoring skills or can be trained in how to be a good adult mentor,” the report says.

NCTQ developed its own standards to address what it considers insufficient guidelines from both the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education – whose standards “do not draw a line in any area” to measurably distinguish between high- and low-quality programs – and the Association of Teacher Educators, the report says.

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