Teacher prep gets failing grade

Study faults education schools, but the schools say the study is badly flawed

If our public schools are struggling, maybe it’s no wonder. According to a recent study, the colleges and universities that train American teachers do an abysmal job, churning out graduates ill-equipped to help children learn and manage a classroom.

The report, from the National Council on Teacher Quality, says teacher preparation programs across the country have become “an industry of mediocrity.” The study assessed 1,130 US schools of education that do teacher training. It concluded that most of them (71 percent) don’t provide “practical, research-based” training in reading instruction, very few emulate the training in math instruction provided by high-performing countries such as Singapore and South Korea, and almost all of them (93 percent) fail to ensure student teaching placements with highly-skilled teacher mentors and frequent, concrete feedback during student teaching.

“They are not delivering teachers who are classroom ready, and they don’t see that as their mission, either,” said Kate Walsh, the organization’s president, during a recent trip to Boston to discuss the findings.

Walsh said far too much of the focus in teacher preparation programs is on lofty education theory, while far too little time is devoted to helping would-be teachers acquire the practical skills needed in classrooms today. “They’ve thrown off the idea that their job is to train teachers,” Walsh said of most programs.

Walsh pointed to the poor quality of reading instruction in teacher preparation programs as a telling measure of how out of step colleges and universities are. She said there are five components widely recognized to effective reading instruction, which, if “competently and systematically taught,” could reduce the rate of reading failure in the US from 30 percent to five percent, yet few teacher training programs do this consistently. “It’s like we have a cure for cancer in front of us that we’re ignoring,” she said, describing the state of reading instruction as “malpractice.”

In Massachusetts, only 13 percent of the programs were deemed to prepare students adequately in “effective, scientifically based reading instruction,” a figure that is less than half the low national rate of 29 percent. None of the Massachusetts programs that were evaluated scored a perfect “four stars” in the category assessing classroom management skills. Meanwhile, less than one-quarter of the Bay State programs restrict admissions to the top half of the college-going population. The teacher quality council says countries where students outperform the US typically set an even higher bar for entering teacher training programs.

The report has met with strong criticism from leaders of teacher training programs, who say it does a poor job assessing the quality of programs and contains many errors. The ratings were based mostly on a review of course requirements and syllabi. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which represents teacher educator programs, said the Washington-based organization National Council on Teacher Quality that produced the report is mainly out to denigrate education schools, not improve teacher preparation. The council’s report, which was released in conjunction with US News & World Report, is part of a “public relations campaign to undermine higher education-based teacher preparation,” said Sharon Robinson, the president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, in a statement. “The council does not genuinely seek to improve teacher preparation, nor is it a helpful or reliable guide for parents, prospective teacher candidates or the public.”

Leaders of some of the Massachusetts schools that received poor ratings say they were the victim of clumsy methodology that can’t be relied upon to provide a true gauge of a program’s quality. The graduate elementary education program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, for example, got a zero on the reading instruction measure. But school officials say that’s because the course covering reading instruction wasn’t offered in the fall of 2010 or spring of 2011, the only two semesters that the study examined. The reading instruction course is typically offered every third semester as part of the two-year program, said Traci Almeida, coordinator of teacher licensure at UMass Dartmouth, one of three Massachusetts programs that were branded with a “consumer alert” because of their low ratings.

Bridgewater State University, one of the other Bay State programs with the dubious distinction of earning a “consumer alert,” got a poor rating on its student teacher program. Anna Bradfield, executive director for university initiatives and former dean of the College of Education and Allied Studies, says Bridgewater got a low rating because it works collaboratively with districts to match students with “appropriately trained and licensed” mentor-teachers, rather than exercising unilateral control over assignments. “It put a bad taste in our mouths,” Bradfield said of the rating system. “Have they already said, we think teacher education programs are lousy and we’re going to set out to prove it? I don’t know that that was their agenda, but it sure feels like it.”

Lesley University was also saddled with a “consumer alert” – in this case for its graduate elementary education program. Jack Gillette, dean of the graduate school of education, said it makes no sense to him for Lesley to be marked down, for example, because it exercises flexibility in the admissions criteria for its students. Gillette arrived at Lesley in 2011 after directing the teacher prep program at Yale University. “I saw plenty of high GPA [grade point average] candidates at Yale who were horrible in the classroom,” he said. Lesley’s graduate program, on the other hand, he said, accepts some candidates with undistinguished undergraduate records who have been out of school for some time, but performed extraordinarily well in another field before turning to a career in education. Many of them are now showing themselves to be “fabulous teachers,” said Gillette. “They are different learners as adults,” he said, a nuance that the teacher quality council’s ratings simply can’t account for.

Gillette, who penned a commentary piece for Education Week on the new study, faults the report for engaging in reform “overhype and overreach,” but he also says the hardline criticism of the report from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which urged its members to not to even participate in the study, is not helpful. “We can’t afford to stick our head in the sand,” he said, and act as if teacher training doesn’t need to improve.

For her part, Walsh, the National Council on Teacher Quality president, is unrepentant in the face of criticism from leaders of teacher training programs. “There is an incredible arrogance to higher education,” she said. “It is a sector that is unused to answering to external critics.”

Those critics are hardly limited to groups like the National Council on Teacher Quality. Dissatisfaction with teacher preparation programs extends across the world of education policy and practice, starting at the very top. In a 2009 speech at Columbia’s Teachers College that received widespread notice, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said “many if not most” teacher prep programs in the US are “mediocre,” and he called for “revolutionary change—not evolutionary tinkering” in education schools. Duncan cited inadequate training in classroom management and a failure to school would-be teachers in the use of data to improve their instruction as just two of many deficiencies in teacher preparation programs.

To date, 24 state education chiefs, including Massachusetts education commissioner Mitchell Chester, and nearly 100 district superintendents, including recently retired Boston school superintendent Carol Johnson, have endorsed the National Council on Teacher Quality report. “Dissatisfaction with teacher preparation programs is a longstanding and widespread issue,” said Chester. “I think it’s valuable to have external evaluations of the work that we do.”

“Often the teacher education programs are heavy on philosophy of education, more conceptual understanding of the field of education, than they are focused on the practical aspects of leading a classroom, helping young people to read, identifying common math misconceptions, and having a variety of strategies for addressing those misconceptions,” Chester said, echoing some of the same criticisms voiced by Walsh.

One criticism of the new report from officials at education schools – that it focuses too much on “inputs” like syllabus materials rather than the output of actual teaching effectiveness – is something district and state officials are beginning to address. Earlier this month, the New York City Department of Education released a report evaluating the performance of new teacher hires based on the teacher prep program they graduated from. Chester said Massachusetts will begin making plans this fall to carry out similar analyses.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“We’re going to be paying more attention to outcomes data from our teacher preparation programs,” he said. “We’re going to be more deliberate about tracking where their graduates go – whether they’re going to places that have trouble filling jobs with strong candidates. We’re also going to be tracking the performance of the students of those graduates, so we’ll be watching the kinds of learning gains that graduates of different teaching programs getting in their classrooms.”

Walsh said the reaction from those in the K-12 school world tells her that report’s call for dramatic change and improvement in teacher preparation programs is on the right track. “We’ve gotten significant buy-in from public school educators who had nothing to gain,” she said. “That speaks to their tremendous frustration with the current state of teacher preparation.”