The vast majority of teacher education programs -- housed in universities and colleges across the United States -- are not sufficiently preparing future teachers to run their own classrooms, says a highly critical new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality.  Like much of the group's previous work, the new study's methodology generated complaints from many education school leaders, even as they acknowledge that programs need to improve.
The council's Teacher Prep Review assigns ratings to programs at 608 institutions; some of the data are also published in U.S. News and World Report . Only four out of a total of 1,200 elementary and secondary education programs received four out of four stars in the review; meanwhile 163 programs, or one in seven, received less than one star and were given a “warning” symbol, telling potential candidates not to bother applying, because they are “unlikely to obtain much return on their investment.”
According to the review, teacher candidates are not learning the appropriate content to teach or the correct ways to teach it. Also, the report says, admissions standards for teacher preparation programs are too low, and student teaching experiences are less effective than they could be.
“They have become an industry of mediocrity, churning out first-year teachers with classroom management skills and content knowledge inadequate to thrive in classrooms with ever-increasing ethnic and socioeconomic student diversity,” says the review.
Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which describes itself as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit research and policy group” that “advocates for reforms in a broad range of teacher policies," said the study was “unprecedented” and “comprehensive.”
The Teacher Prep Review provides data on more than 2,400 elementary, secondary and a handful of special education programs from 1,130 higher education institutions, though only 1,200 programs provided enough data to receive a program ranking. The council reviewed course descriptions, syllabuses, student handbooks, student-teacher observation instruments, graduate and employee surveys, and other materials.
The council set out to review each teacher prep program on a set of 16 different standards, but was often unable to collect the data it was hoping for, Walsh said. The council asked each institution to upload materials to a database, but the majority of colleges and universities were “tremendously uncooperative,” she said. When an institution did not willingly hand over materials, the council submitted open-records requests, only some of which produced the desired material. Since private universities are not subject to the reporting requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, they are largely underrepresented in the study.
Because the council could not collect adequate data from each institution, the program ratings -- which are published by U.S. News and World Report -- are based on just a few standards. The elementary programs were scored on five standards: selection criteria, early reading, and elementary mathematics, content preparation and student teaching. The secondary programs were scored on selection criteria, content preparation and student teaching.
The review provides a more comprehensive analysis -- available in the report and on the NCTQ website -- of how well programs fared on each individual standard, but those findings were often limited, too, by the lack of available data.
For instance, of the 2,400 programs, 840 could be scored on “classroom management,” and 44 percent could be scored on “outcomes.” Over all, the council collected enough data to rate an average of 58 percent of the programs across all samples.
Teacher Program Pushback
NCTQ's work has been controversial throughout its existence.
In 2011, after hearing that U.S. News's ratings of teacher preparation programs would be based on the methodology of an outside entity rather than the work of the news magazine itself, 35 chief academic officers from the education schools of the Association of American Universities signed a letter expressing concern to Walsh and U.S. News editor Brian Kelly about the council’s methodology.
Kelly said Walsh was “very responsive” to that letter and made adjustments to the methodology. He stood behind his decision to enlist the help of the council.
“The depths of what they were examining is what we thought was so interesting,” Kelly said in an interview Monday. “We hadn’t seen anything of that nature, with that level of scrutiny, in any other college data.”
But the council's methodology and findings continue to raise hackles -- and not just from the teacher ed schools whose work the group is lambasting.
“It’s disappointing that for something as important as strengthening teacher preparation programs, NCTQ chose to use the gimmick of a four-star rating system without using professionally accepted standards, visiting any of the institutions or talking with any of the graduates,” said the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, in a statement. “While we agree with NCTQ on the need to improve teacher preparation, it would be more productive to focus on developing a consistent, systemic approach to lifting the teaching profession instead of resorting to attention-grabbing consumer alerts based on incomplete standards.”
Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, has been an outspoken critic of teacher prep programs. "We don’t agree on what subjects are going to be taught, we don’t agree on whether or not it’s a craft," he said, adding that admissions standards are far too low, and faculty often “haven’t been in the classroom in years.... Other than that, I think it works really well,” he said with a laugh.
Nonetheless, “I don’t trust the methodology" NCTQ used, Levine said, since the data were incomplete and focused on documents rather than observing classrooms or teacher candidates.
Leaders of teacher preparation programs complained that the review relied almost entirely on syllabuses, course descriptions and other “inputs” rather than “outputs.”
“I think we all know that what a program describes in a program guide or syllabus, is a very, very thin and indirect determinant of what the students who take that course actually learn,” said Bob Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.
The University of Michigan’s School of Education was one of the few institutions that willingly gave its materials to the National Council on Teacher Quality. “There was no particular reason not to,” said Dean Deborah Loewenberg Ball. “This is one of society’s most important topics.”
But the council's focus on curriculum is "unlikely to make a huge change,” she said. ”I don’t think judging syllabi is the most important thing to be doing.”
Donna Wiseman, dean of the University of Maryland’s College of Education, said the notion that teacher prep programs are not constantly re-evaluating and changing themselves simply is not true.
“I think over the years, there’s been constant revision and reform in teacher education,” Wiseman said. “We are very retrospective on ourselves and know that we do have some issues.”