National Edition

How to better prepare teachers for class

Published: Wednesday, July 2 2014 4:20 a.m. MDT

In this May 13, 2010 photo, English teacher Nicholas Melvoin walks around his classroom as he teaches at Edwin Markham Middle School in the Watts district of South Los Angeles.

Reed Saxon, Associated Press

Earlier this month, a California judge struck down legal protections of sub-par teachers, arguing that they violated a child’s right to a quality education. All the debate centered on the “last hired first fired” principle, and how soon a newly hired teacher could get tenure.

Teachers who can’t teach should not be promoted and retained, the judge concluded. What didn’t enter that debate was how those teachers became teachers in the first place like who trained them and how they were hired.

“We are never going to fire our way to a strong teaching force,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. How colleges select and prepare candidates for teaching jobs matters as much or more than how they are managed or sanctioned once on the job, she argued.

In its second annual report card released this month, NCTQ studied 836 teacher-training programs across the United States. The report concluded that by and large, they fail to filter and prepare teachers for America’s classrooms.

If NCTQ has its way, its annual rankings will soon become the gold standard for education training programs and schools that refuse to adjust their curriculum will become pariahs.

It’s an immense undertaking, Walsh said in a conference call announcing the new report, requiring the efforts of 88 staff members, as well as ancillary support from some of the most prominent statisticians in the country. The review, she said, costs $3 million a year to produce, all which is raised from philanthropy, but critics question whether the new ratings have any solid grounding.

“There is no accepted methodology for identifying strong and weak programs,” said Edward Fuller, director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis at Penn State University.

Rough numbers

Closely aligned with a broad-based movement to reform American education, most prominently embodied in the Common Core, NCTQ leans heavily for financial support on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with additional support from dozens of major philanthropic foundations.

According to the report, 17 states do not have a single teacher training program that was rated "high quality," Walsh said. On the elementary school front, the report found that only 26 education programs delivered comprehensive elementary teacher education.

The report was compiled largely by scrutinizing syllabi and the structure of the programs. The researchers looked for specific markers, for example, whether student teaching was required to take place with mentors who had excellent teacher ratings. They also looked for requirements on the frequency of feedback during student teaching.

Some of the outcomes are surprising. One of the most elite public universities in the country, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, ranked 406th in secondary education programs, while the top five was populated with such luminaries as Fort Hays State, Furman and Henderson State University.

The upending of prestige suits NCTQ just fine. Walsh thinks the higher education establishment will come around to her organization's point of view. There are, she says, conversations going on behind the scenes, driven in part by the NCTQ push.

“While the public position of higher education hasn’t changed much, “ Walsh said, “we have plenty of evidence that we are saying is having an impact on their actions.”

Medical model

Walsh says NCTQ is simply trying to align the teaching profession with what colleges and universities do to prepare teachers. There has been, she says, a long-standing gap between what schools say they need and what they get from newly minted teachers.

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