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Report: Teacher training in U.S. including some programs in Utah an 'industry of mediocrity'

Published: Wednesday, June 19 2013 9:25 a.m. MDT

Burbank said it is valuable for a school to be reviewed by outside sources, but it's important with any study or report to look beyond the data's face value. She said there are questions raised about the council's conclusions or the motivations of its stakeholders and those questions would be just as important if Utah's schools had received top ratings.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Most colleges and universities are mediocre at preparing students to be teachers, including the majority of Utah programs, according to a new report by a Washington-based advocacy group.

The report, released Tuesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality, claims that the U.S. was once the world leader in educational attainment but has now fallen to the middle of the pack.

The council lists some of the factors contributing to educational decline — shrinking budgets, entrenched poverty, classroom crowding and increasing diversity — but also suggests part of the blame lies with the quality of teachers entering the workforce each year.

"Through an exhaustive and unprecedented examination of how these schools operate, the Review finds they have become an industry of mediocrity, churning out first-year teachers with classroom management skills and content knowledge inadequate to thrive in classrooms with ever-increasing ethnic and socioeconomic student diversity," the summary states.

The report has drawn the ire of many in the education community but has also been endorsed by the top education officials in 24 states as well as 76 advocacy organizations, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. The Council was formed in 2000 as a bipartisan advocacy group that calls for comprehensive reform in the way the education profession is structured and regulated.

The school ratings report was funded by several state-based consortia as well as national groups like the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Gleason Family Foundation and The Teaching Commission.

Pamela Silberman, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education, said she takes issue with the report, particularly in how failure appears to be ubiquitous.

"The fact that it didn’t find any institutions that they felt were above mediocre is a little bit suspicious," she said. "It can’t be that everybody is failing. We have some great education in this country."

The review used a four-star scale to rate 1,200 teacher training programs. Only four programs, all in secondary education, received a four-star rating with less than 10 percent of schools earning the "honor roll" designation of three or more stars. Roughly one in seven received less than one star and were instead awarded a consumer alert "warning" symbol.

Utah results

In Utah, only the secondary education program at Western Governors University, a private online school based in Salt Lake City, made it to the honor roll with a three-star ranking.

The elementary education program at the University of Utah and the secondary education programs at Utah State University and Utah Valley University each received 2.5 stars.

Two-star ratings were earned by BYU's elementary education program and Dixie State University's secondary education program, as well as the remaining programs at USU and the U.

While no Utah school was designated with a zero-star warning symbol, BYU's secondary education program and Dixie's elementary education program each received a single star.

Silberman described the National Council's methodology as highly subjective, in that it did not include on-site reviews and focused more on "inputs" like admissions standards and coursework as opposed to "outputs" like student success.

She said schools regularly undergo systematic accreditation reviews based on established standards by the U.S. Department of Education, but those standards are not reflected in the council's report.

"If we look at Utah specifically, all of our universities have received or are in the process of receiving national accreditation from federally authorized accrediting agencies," she said. "I think we agree with the premise that we should have effective teachers and high-quality education. I’m just not sure that we agree with the way that they're analyzing what’s happening in our education programs."

Educators fight back

Mary Burbank, director of the Urban Institute for Teacher Education at the University of Utah, said she also has concerns about the study's methodology. She gave the example of student teaching experience, which the report suggests is not required of University of Utah students, as one instance where the National Council on Teacher Quality appears to have insufficient data.

"Our students spend 400 hours in schools working with teachers," she said. "That’s one example of a misrepresentation of a program."

In the report, National Council on Teacher Quality officials note that they experienced a lack of cooperation in data collection from the country's institutions of higher education. Only 114 schools voluntarily cooperated with the review, according to the council, with the remaining institutions either declined to provide data or simply didn't respond to requests.

"We were thus forced to look for alternative ways to collect legitimate data," the report states. "As always, our chief concern was ensuring that we obtained valid data that accurately reflect the training these institutions provide teacher candidates."

Burbank said it is valuable for a school to be reviewed by outside sources, but it's important with any study or report to look beyond the data's face value. She said there are questions raised about the council's conclusions or the motivations of its stakeholders and those questions would be just as important if Utah's schools had received top ratings.

"It’s interesting to have another group’s perspectives," she said. "Certainly if you’re looking in the mirror all the time, you think you’re doing pretty well."

BYU response

Heidi Jones, a secondary education teacher who lives in North Salt Lake, said she felt prepared to enter the classroom after completing her undergraduate studies at BYU and, more recently, her graduate studies at Weber State University.

She said there's always room for improvement, particularly in preparing educators to reach out to a more diverse classroom and help English language learners. But from her experience, she said, most students leave school with a mastery of their subject area.

She also said academic training can only prepare a teacher to a certain point, as the real-world challenges of a unique classroom of students is an education in itself.

"The teacher really has to get in their own classroom and figure out a lot of things," she said. "That’s what teaching’s all about, it’s not teaching the same lesson no matter who your students are."

Richard Young, dean of BYU's McKay School of Education, was not available for an interview Tuesday but in a prepared statement said school staff would be reviewing the report to address any relevant findings.

"The evidence collected and cited by NCTQ does not capture BYU’s use of current best practices and adherence to national standards," he said.

"The BYU teacher education program has been continually accredited since 1954 by organizations that have undergone rigorous review by the U.S. Department of Education."

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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