BOSTON Both a national nonprofit organization and the U.S. Department of Education have recently turned their attention to education schools that long have failed to produce teachers equipped to improve student achievement. The same focus that highlights just how grim the current situation is will be needed on an ongoing basis if we are to solve the stubborn teacher-preparation problem.
A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) rates 1,668 elementary and secondary teacher-preparation programs at 836 colleges and universities using criteria including content preparation, practice teaching and student-admission requirements. Sadly, a majority of the programs fall into the lowest of four categories.
The report places only 26 elementary and 81 secondary programs in its top grouping. Programs that prepare elementary teachers are 1.7 times more likely to fall into the failing category than their secondary-education counterparts. One reason, according to NCTQ, is that so many of them continue to disregard scientifically based reading-instruction methods.
Teacher-prep programs have long fallen short in science, technology, engineering and math. Nearly half the programs NCTQ reviewed failed to ensure that their teacher candidates were capable of STEM instruction. Many of the programs require little or no elementary-school math coursework and don't mandate a single science class.
NCTQ said that just 5 percent of the programs it reviewed have all the components in place for a strong student-teaching experience.
The academic strength of incoming teacher candidates is another longstanding problem. NCTQ found that three-quarters of the programs it reviewed don't insist that applicants fall in the top half of the college-going population.
In 2010, the SAT scores of students intending to pursue undergraduate education degrees ranked 25th out of 29 majors generally associated with four-year degree programs. On average, the credentials of candidates for graduate education programs also were dismal, and among those candidates undergraduate education majors score the lowest.
Rules proposed last month by the Department of Education are a step in the right direction. They would require teacher-preparation programs to either show proof that their graduates have the skills to advance student learning or lose the ability to offer prospective teachers federal financial aid. "This is nothing short of a moral issue," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Education Week.
The 1998 version of the Higher Education Act directed states to identify poor-performing teacher-prep programs, but 34 states have never identified a single one. The new proposed rules would require states to place each program in one of four categories ranging from "low performing" to "exceptional." Those rated below "effective" for two of the three previous years would be blocked from offering students federal Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education grants. The problem with the proposed rules is the timeline: There would be no withholding of grants until the 2020-21 academic year at the earliest.
For decades, public education in general and education schools in particular have been permeated by a Lake Wobegon culture in which everyone is assumed to be above average and mediocrity is the norm. But education consumes a huge part of state and local budgets, and many teacher-preparation programs are part of publicly funded colleges and universities. Fixing those programs is imperative if we are to improve the return on our education investment.