Teacher Prep Gets an F

Dismal. After an eight-year effort, that’s the conclusion the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has come to about teacher preparation programs in the United States. And it’s hard to argue with, after reading the comprehensive, first-of-its-kind Teacher Prep Review.

I’ll spare you a detailed summary of the report, which has received substantial and well-earned news coverage in many outlets. But the basic facts are these: NCTQ rated more than 1,100 programs on four standards and found them to be unselective, impractical, lacking in research-based techniques and unaware of how their graduates perform when they enter the classroom. It is a sweeping indictment of an industry that produces hundreds of thousands of graduates per year.

I see four early takeaways from NCTQ’s work:

  • The focus is on the ratings of individual institutions, but to me those are less important than the broader trends.  The money quote in the whole report is this one, found on page 6: “Many in the field of teacher preparation have rejected any notion that its role is to train the next generation of teachers. Training in any specific skill or strategy is now largely viewed as harmful, both to the candidates and their future students, as any training regimen in classroom management or reading instruction runs the risk, the field worries, of new teachers pulling from a fixed bag of tricks rather than considering each class as something new and unique. Many in the field do not believe that training will arm novice teachers with skills that might make them more effective, as specific surgical methods are taught to medical students.”  For the field of teacher preparation, this is a far more damning statement than assigning two stars out of four to Midwestern State University.
  • Preparation programs and the universities that house them need to answer the specific arguments made by NCTQ. The preparation programs are angry about NCTQ’s study. Some have attempted to conceal course materials so aggressively that NCTQ had to sue for access. Upon this week’s publication, most criticism from higher education has centered on NCTQ’s methodology. That’s all fine and good, but it won’t be enough. If NCTQ presented an inaccurate picture of how teachers are being trained nationally, we need to hear a detailed rebuttal and we need to see some evidence. Are teachers being trained in research-based techniques for reading and math? If so, which ones? At what depth? And to what effect? 
  • A test for Finland in the United States. Folks who constantly praise Finland’s approach will have a hard time criticizing this review, since a major element of the reform agenda there was a massive shift in how and where teachers are trained. Teacher prep in Finland is entirely research-based, and offered only by a handful of universities. In addition, it’s hard to be accepted into teacher training programs there; only about 1 in 10 candidates is.
  • The right kind of controversy. The report doesn’t pull any punches. NCTQ is willing to deliver a tough message in stark language. I think it’s worthwhile. (We were among many organizations and educators who broadly endorsed the report.) NCTQ deserves credit for its courage and call to arms, as well as its perseverance—the organization encountered significant resistance from some universities.

We all need to be pushed. While our programs were mentioned in favorable tones—our Teaching Fellows programs include auditions for aspiring teachers, and accepted students have a relatively high average GPA of 3.3—we have struggled with some of the same issues that NCTQ identified in this report. We’ve taken steps on our own that precede some of the reports’ recommendations, including revamping our teacher preparation programs to base certification on teachers’ classroom performance during their first year (for more on that, read our recent report Leap Year).

It’s a tough road ahead for the prep programs willing to take on the important challenge this report puts forth. But let’s have the debate and see where we end up. And let’s give due credit for NCTQ for calling a question that’s long overdue.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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