June 18, 2013

University programs that train teachers get mediocre marks

Lyndsey Layton / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The vast majority of the 1,430 education programs that prepare the nation's K-12 teachers are mediocre, according to a first-ever ranking that immediately touched off a firestorm.

Released Tuesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based advocacy group, the rankings are part of a $5 million project funded by major U.S. foundations. Education secretaries in 21 states have endorsed the report, but some universities and education experts quickly assailed the review as incomplete and inaccurate.

Programs at Furman, Lipscomb, Ohio State and Vanderbilt universities received the only "four-star" ratings, while some programs, including at George Washington University, received no stars, eliciting a warning from the council for prospective students to avoid them.

While debate swirls about the validity of the ratings of individual schools, there is broad agreement among educators and public officials — from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to governors to unions — that the country is failing to adequately train the 200,000 people who become teachers each year.

"We don't know how to prepare teachers," said Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University and author of a scathing critique of teacher preparation. "We can't decide whether it's a craft or a profession. Do you need a lot of education as you would in a profession, or do you need a little bit and then learn on the job, like a craft? I don't know of any other profession that's so uncertain about how to educate their professionals."

Many education schools suffer from the same maladies, Levine said. "Admission standards are low, no connection between clinical work and academic work and some of the faculty haven't been in a school for years," he said.

The topic has gained urgency, with new research that shows teacher quality is the single most important factor inside a classroom that affects student learning. As baby boomers retire, classrooms increasingly have newly minted teachers at the helm.

Amy Grelck, 26, thought she was ready to teach after graduating from the education program at Illinois Wesleyan University in 2009. Then she stepped into a fifth-grade classroom.

"I was in shock, really," said Grelck, whose undergraduate semester as a student teacher in an affluent school did not prepare her for her first full-time job teaching in a high-poverty classroom in Chambord, Ill. "I really loved the (university) program, while I was in it. But I really felt like I needed more of the realities of teaching. I had quite a bit of low-achieving, struggling students that I didn't know what to do with."

Grelck was faced with a litany of things she didn't know: How to group kids by ability and teach them math simultaneously; how to manage behavioral problems; how to use data, such as her students' test scores, to tweak her instruction.

She leaned heavily on more experienced teachers at her school who offered coaching and encouragement. "Nothing can really prepare you for that first year," Grelck said. "But it definitely could have been a lot better if my program had been more focused on the realities that I was going to face."

Some other professions have standardized systems and national exams to ensure consistency. Medical students, for example, undergo a four-year program and a residency before taking a state licensing exam and national board exams, all designed so new physicians have the same core knowledge and practical skills.

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