Teacher Incompetence or Lack of Adequate Training?

Published June 5, 2019

The research is mixed. Some reviews (of the many studies on retention or promotion) have shown little benefit for retention in grade 3 compared with social promotion to grade 4.  For example, a 2017 review looked at the results of Florida’s “A+ plan,” begun by Jeb Bush when he was governor. Little benefit has been found for the retained students.

Other reviews have shown that retention in the primary grades correlated with dropping out in high school. Nevertheless, some students who don’t pass a grade 3 reading test (for promotion to grade 4) do go on to grade 4 after submitting a portfolio, taking an alternative assessment, and/or attending a special summer school session and thereby qualifying for promotion to grade 4, even though they still may not do grade 4 work adequately.  The quality of the work these low achievers do may depend on whether upper elementary teachers can group them for skills work in their self-contained classrooms.  School or state policies may forbid grouping practices in the teaching of reading, especially in elementary school.

Unfortunately, neither promotion nor retention has solved the problem of low reading achievement, it seems.  Earlier intervention than grade 3 is now often recommended. For example, see a 2008 review. However, it is not clear if earlier intervention has helped poor readers in grades K, 1, and 2 to pass a high-stakes grade 3 reading test or graduate from high school at a more frequent rate compared with a similar group of poor readers without early intervention or help in school. For example, see this recent review. As we all know, there are many low achievers in elementary reading classes to this day.

Indeed, because of a growing number of state laws requiring retention (probably in desperation), many third graders in this country’s schools today will not be promoted to fourth grade.  For example, we are told that thousands may be held back in Mississippi. That newspaper article from Mississippi refrains from pointing a finger at anyone—the students or their teachers or parents.  However, many education policymakers seem to fault, implicitly at least, elementary classroom teachers for the failure of many kids to learn how to read by grade 3.

So-called “retention” studies also seem to assume teachers or school policy makers are to blame when researchers find few long-term differences between low-achieving third graders who repeated grade 3 and similar low-achieving third graders who were promoted to grade 4. Researchers as well as journalists, nevertheless, are reluctant to criticize struggling students or their teachers.

But when a large group of kids in a state have not learned beginning reading skills by the end of grade 3 (remember, they’ve been in school for at least 4 years), it is fair to ask if the problem may lie with their teachers’ training programs, not their teachers. Few parents or other readers would guess that teachers’ training programs may be the source of the problem because the studies on retention in grade 3 rarely provide information about the beginning reading program these students have had or the preparation program their teachers had.   Their focus is on students’ achievement in school after grade 3.

Why are large numbers of students who don’t pass a grade 3 test of beginning reading apt to be an indictment of a state’s preparation programs for primary grade teachers?  Because, as I learned in Massachusetts, most elementary teachers have not been trained to use effective, research-based strategies.  How do we know this?  I learned this by examining licensure tests for prospective teachers of young children before helping to develop one in the Bay State. Most licensure tests of beginning reading knowledge for prospective teachers of young children, I discovered, do not assess or assess adequately the major elements of research-based knowledge of beginning reading as set forth in the National Reading Panel’s report of 2000.

The components of effective beginning reading programs and strategies one would expect researchers to look for, or professional development providers to provide, are well-known and listed here. But, alas, they are not apt to be found in many primary classrooms.  Teachers teach the way that they are taught to teach in their training programs.

Since around the 1960s, teacher training programs in the U.S. have tended to promote guessing from context (often called Whole Language) as the primary strategy.  Even if some decoding is taught (as in many misnamed “Balanced Literacy” programs), kids are not taught the purpose for an alphabet. Nor are they taught systematically how to decode the alphabetic symbols used for beginning reading in English (the symbols for the sounds made in words read by children in the short stories created for beginning readers). Yet, somehow, teacher preparation programs have escaped the (often implicit) fault-finding that their own students—prospective teachers—have not.  For reasons that are not clear yet, low achievement in K-12 students is perceived by education policy makers, researchers, and many others as the fault of their teachers.  At least, that is who the framers of the Race to the Top grant competition in 2011 decided should be held accountable for low K-12 student scores on federal or state-mandated achievement tests.  Indeed, sometimes as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on her students’ test scores.

Strangely, while K-12 teachers, under current education policies, are held accountable to varying degrees for the low scores of their K-12 students, faculty in teacher preparation programs are NOT held accountable for the failure of their own students (the prospective teachers they recruited and prepared) to teach K-12 reading well enough so that the racial and ethnic “gaps” between low-achieving K-12 students’ average reading scores and the average reading scores of higher-achieving K-12  students have narrowed.  What is worse, many education policy makers seem to believe today that the chief reason low-achieving readers are low-achieving is because their teachers, principals, or communities are bigoted and have discriminated against them.

One might think that the requirement to pass a well-constructed licensure test in beginning reading skills for all prospective teachers of young children would ensure that all young children in our schools have adequately trained teachers.  But only a few states (Massachusetts, Arkansas, Connecticut, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin) today seem to use a well-constructed licensure test of beginning reading skills for prospective special education, early childhood, and/or elementary teachers, as I showed in my own research on the content of licensure tests for special education teachers.

Moreover, it turns out that in some states there are differences in pass rates for “white” and black prospective teachers on their required licensure tests in reading, leading some policymakers and researchers to imply that racial or ethnic differences in pass rates for prospective teachers also means discriminatory tests (licensure tests).

For example, in Wisconsin: “According to Department of Public Instruction (DPI) records, two-thirds of people who took the Foundations of Reading Test (FoRT) between 2013 and 2016 [a test developed in the Bay State in 2000] passed on the first try. Including those who took it two or more times, 85% passed. Pass rates were better for white test-takers than for minority test-takers, which led to concerns that the test keeps a disproportionate number of minority potential-teachers out of classrooms. Department of Public Instruction officials say many who have not passed FoRT would be good teachers and passing FoRT isn’t the only sign someone will be a good teacher.”

A major part of the problem with the thinking expressed by education policy makers at the Wisconsin DPI is the idea that raw scores on licensure tests predict teacher effectiveness. They weren’t intended to do so at the inception of teacher licensing, and still are not.  Passing a licensure test in most if not all professions means only that the test-taker has adequate entry-level knowledge for the profession.  It is assumed that those who don’t pass the test don’t get a license.  While adequate entry-level subject knowledge is needed for effectiveness in any profession and is necessary.  But it is not sufficient.  For prospective teachers of young children, student teaching experiences are expected to indicate to supervising personnel whether the test-taker is apt to become an effective teacher.  In other words, NOT passing a well-constructed licensure test of beginning reading skills is a sign that the test-taker is UNLIKELY to become a good or effective teacher of beginning reading.

It is therefore not surprising that thousands of children across the country fail a reading test at the end of grade 3 when the basic problem may well be that they have not been taught how to read by their teacher because she has not been trained in her preparation program to use research-based knowledge of beginning reading, or tested for this knowledge on her licensure tests. This may wellbe the case in Florida today despite almost two decades of the A+ Plan.

[Originally Published at Truth in American Education]