Teacher-Prep Programs Under Fire

Published February 3, 2015

Teacher education programs are increasingly drawing scrutiny from both government agencies and nonprofit groups seeking better outcomes from U.S. public schools. At issue is whether current university programs successfully recruit and train potential educators. Several states – concluding universities and colleges under their purview have failed or are failing – subsequently suspended those schools’ accreditation as teacher education institutions. Many education stakeholders, however, say the majority of states are responding too slowly to the perceived crisis of poorly trained teachers.

Reporter Stephen Sawchuk, writing for Education Week, reported this past December that Michigan suspended a half-dozen teacher education programs at Lake Superior State University in the state’s Upper Peninsula in 2012. A primary indicator of the schools’ failure was steadily declining licensure test scores. Sawchuk quotes Donna Fiebelkorn, the assistant dean of the LSSU education school: “My sense is that if there had not been some external force, things would not have changed.”

According to Sawchuk, Michigan’s suspension of LSSU’s education programs provided the school with motivation “to scrutinize the suitability of the teacher-prep course offerings and to tackle the failure of the humanities, science, and education faculty to work together.”

Exacerbating the Problem

However, Sawchuk also notes: “[N]ationwide, the closures of teacher education programs are exceedingly rare.” Of the approximately 25,000 teacher accreditation programs in the United States, less than 60 subject and grade-specific programs have been closed or suspended between 2009 and 2014. Only a combined dozen teacher education schools and departments have been suspended or shuttered completely during the same five-year period.

States are reluctant to discipline teaching programs, Sawchuk explains, for a myriad of reasons. Among them is the perception there exists a shortage of teachers as well as pressure from state legislators and labor leaders to ignore problems out of political expediency.

Kyle Olson is founder and president of the Michigan-based Education Action Group, a national think tank focused on school choice and curtailing teacher unions. Olson notes a lack of teachers is no reason to lower standards. “There have been numerous reports of teacher shortages around the country,” he said. “The natural reaction from planners will be to make it easier to get into a teachers college and obtain a degree, only exacerbating the problem.”

Poor Preparation for Teaching Rigors

Olson says the failure of teaching-education programs is caused by a concentration on theoretical studies rather than practical knowledge. “Colleges aren’t preparing teachers-to-be with the basic nuts and bolts of how to be a teacher, such as effective classroom management and teaching skills. Instead, they focus on theories of education and focus solely on the opinions of far-left radicals like Paulo Freire and Bill Ayers. I fear this problem is going to get worse before it gets better.”

Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, says her organization has been observing the problem with teacher-prep programs, and recognizes a wide disparity between what the public expects from teachers and the training those teachers receive. She concludes that lackadaisical admission standards and too-easy classes are often to blame for poor results from teachers.

“What we did uncover in higher-education programs is many churn out thousands of students a year who just aren’t ready to teach,” said Walsh. “Many students graduate with honors, but if you dig down into their coursework, you’ll see that it’s easy to earn A’s in many programs.”

Walsh continues, “Assignments don’t prepare them for rigors of teaching. They graduate unprepared to teach. About half of students enrolled in university education programs see how difficult real teaching is when they student teach and drop out.”

Grade Inflation and Criterion Deficient

NCTQ released a study last November that concluded teacher candidates are graded too easily. According to the report, 58 percent of schools routinely granting far higher grades to students in teaching programs than students from other disciplines. Sampling 509 teachers-education programs, NCTQ found that 30 percent of students graduated cum laude, while 44 percent of students in education programs earned honors. At some colleges the honors gap between education-prep students and other disciplines exceeded 40 percentage points.

“Medical school is very hard, for example, because working as a doctor is a very demanding profession,” Walsh said. “Teaching is also a very demanding profession, yet universities make it easy for student admissions into education programs and provide an easy course of study. Admission policies need to be tougher, and assignments should simulate actual teaching and communicate how tough it is to teach.”

Another finding from the NCTQ study is the use of “criterion-deficient” assignments, requiring no more from teacher candidates than a general statement or opinion. This approach renders any teacher evaluation of a candidate’s knowledge and skills difficult if not impossible.

“Certain attributes of successful teachers cannot be taught – you don’t have to be a rocket scientist but you must be smart, you must enjoy being a teacher and you must be willing to work very hard,” said Walsh. “We have to dispel notions in this country that the only attribute necessary for being a successful teacher is anyone who likes kids.”

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is a policy advisor for The Heartland Institute.

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On the Internet:

“States Slow to Close Faltering Teacher Ed. Programs,” Stephen Sawchuk, Education Week, Dec. 16, 2014: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/12/16/states-slow-to-close-faltering-teacher-ed.html?cmp=ENL-EU-NEWS1

“2014 Teacher Prep Review Findings,” National Council on Teacher Quality: http://www.nctq.org/teacherPrep/review2014/findings.do

“Training Our Future Teachers: Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them,” National Council on Teacher Quality: http://www.nctq.org/dmsStage/EasyAs