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June 19, 2013

NCTQ Teacher Prep Review: Brief Highlights

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently released a lengthy report called “Teacher Prep Review: A Review of the Nation’s Teacher Preparation Programs” (“The Review”). The much anticipated and highly contested report highlights the shortfalls of the vast majority of the nation’s colleges and universities’ teacher preparation programs. The report sounds the alarm on inadequate training for teachers, particularly focusing on what aspiring teachers need to know and be able to do as they enter the nation’s diverse classrooms.

Through much difficulty (read: uncooperative and litigious circumstances), the NCTQ attained data from the 1,130 institutions that train 99 percent of the nation’s traditionally trained teachers. The Review focuses vastly on public institutions and hopes to expand its analysis to include more private universities in subsequent editions. The standards chosen for the review were developed in accordance with educational experts, best practices of high performing educational institutions, surveyed responses from principals and superintendents, and alignment with the Common Core State Standards. The Review focuses on the skills new teachers must have in order to teach to a high standard, thus surpassing expectations set for previous generations of educators. The NCTQ standards are generally categorized as Selection (e.g., how teacher candidates are selected for training programs), Content Preparation (e.g., early reading), Professional Skills (e.g., lesson planning), and Outcomes (e.g., evidence of effectiveness).

The major takeaways from the report are as follows:

  1. From a zero-to-four star rating system, fewer than 10 percent of rated programs received the upper rankings of three to four stars.
    1. Teacher training programs were largely based on document review (e.g., syllabi, student teaching handbooks, etc.), graduate and employer surveys, and student teaching placement materials obtained primarily through open-records requests.
  2. Most teachers’ colleges are not nearly as restrictive as they could be with only a quarter of programs limiting admission to students in the top half of their class.
    1. According to The Review, high-performing nations limit entrance to their teacher preparation programs to the top third of applicants. This variance could have significant consequences on how the U.S. fares globally in educational success.
  3. Though the vast majority of states (46 states and Washington, DC) have agreed to devise curriculum aligning to the Common Core State Standards, The Review finds that a meager one-third of high school programs and less than one-ninth of elementary programs are prepping future teachers at content levels required by those very standards.
    1. This information aligns with the findings highlighted in a recent report co-authored by the Center for Public Education and Change the Equation: “Out of Sync: Many Common Core states have yet to define a Common Core-worthy diploma.”
  4. Seventy-five percent of elementary teacher reading programs do not prime teachers with high-quality methods of reading instruction.
    1. The Review highlights the disturbing fact that 866 different reading textbooks, “the majority of which are partly or wholly unscientific,” are used across the country to train teachers in reading instruction. Not all textbooks are created equal! Texts need to be thoroughly vetted for their usefulness in providing first-rate reading pedagogy.
  5. A dismal 7 percent of programs provide rigorous and impactful student teaching experiences by placing students with effective master teachers.
    1. The Review recommends a shift in policy wherein colleges and universities insist on cooperating teachers who have proven themselves as highly effective teachers and competent mentors. In other words, it is not sufficient to blindly accept any experienced educator who volunteers for this monumental role in the development of a budding teacher.

Mirroring the U.S. News & World Report national rankings of colleges and universities, The
Review aims to serve as a kind of “consumer report” for endeavoring teachers and school administrators. Because first-year teachers are charged with teaching 1.5 million of the nation’s students, that is more than enough reason to take seriously the quality of teacher preparation and its implications on classrooms all over the country.

Notes on methodology: The Review evaluates elementary and secondary programs at both undergraduate and graduate levels (for a total of four different programs) for the top 200 institutions that produce the greatest proportion of new teachers each year. The remaining ~900 institutions (1,130 total were reviewed) each had two of their programs randomly chosen and evaluated. Data from alternative initial certification programs, traditional advanced certification programs, and private institutions of higher education graduating less than 20 new teachers annually were not included in the analysis. NCTQ was able to include a limited sample of special education programs for evaluation with plans to expand their analysis in future editions of The Review.

Thoughts: To be sure, there are a plethora of positive changes being affected nationwide in public education. (For a great example, read about the nation’s consistently climbing graduation rates courtesy of the Diplomas Count Report from Education Week.) The Review, however, highlights some serious causes for concern that might explain why some students still lag so far behind their peers nationwide. Students in high-poverty, high-need schools are still the most likely cohort to be placed with a novice teacher. It is my hope that, at a minimum, this report be used by college faculty, staff, and administration as a tool for reflection, adjustment, and (re)evaluation of how to train the next generation of teachers to be the best this country has ever seen.-Christine Duchouquette






May 3, 2013

Exciting possibilities: Coursera and professional development courses

Coursera, an organization currently facilitating free online access to courses taught by college professors, has announced it will be dipping its toes into the professional development arena.  I have to admit that when I read this headline, I was thrilled.  For teachers to have free, online access to courses offered by experts on education research and teaching methods is a step in the right direction.

First, these courses could allow schools to have resources for teachers to improve their skills that are differentiated for the specific content teachers teach.  Because hiring consultants is expensive, districts often rely on generic workshops that they offer to all teachers.  I’ve sat through my fair share of these: classroom management, assessment, alignment.  However, research shows that teachers aren’t interested in generic professional development, and it doesn’t have an impact on teacher practice or student achievement.  On the other hand, professional development that is tailored to the content one teaches, specifically exploring the elements of the course students struggle with, has been shown to make a real difference in teachers’ practice and students’ learning.  With free online courses, teachers could focus on courses tailored to their content area.

Furthermore, each teacher brings his or her own unique set of strengths and weakness to the profession.  Teaching is a job that demands a lengthy list of skills which are both emotional and cognitive.  Just as some students have more natural talents in certain areas than others, the same is true with teachers.  When I co-taught a class with another teacher, I got to see this full force.  My co-teacher managed the emotional needs of a class flawlessly, while my own strengths were in lesson planning.  Working together, we got to improve our areas of weakness.  Having online courses which are free for teachers allows teachers to think about what areas they need to improve on, taking courses focused on those areas instead of sitting through PD sessions not tailored to their area of need.  Just like we urge teachers to differentiate for students, recognizing that not all students are the same, access to online PD taught by experts allows for differentiation for teachers.

Second, it could save districts lots of professional development money that they can spend more wisely.  There’s a decent amount of evidence to show that districts spend a substantial amount of money on professional development, anywhere from 2 to 7% of their total budget.  Unfortunately, most of that spending is going towards one-shot, generic workshops.  Consultants are expensive, certainly one reason that districts can only afford to have whole-school, generic sessions instead of content-specific sessions.  Nonetheless, by spending copious amounts of money on consultants and staff for workshops, districts often don’t build in professional development support as teachers aim to implement those new skills into the classroom.  The reason that’s problematic is that research studies consistently show that teachers struggle immensely with new skills during implementation of those skills in the classroom, and that without support at this stage, teachers are likely to get frustrated and simply abandon the new skill altogether.  Of course, this makes sense.  Learning how to write is easier than actually writing; learning how to ride a bike is easier than actually riding a bike. Implementation is challenging.  Therefore, schools need to develop support during the implementation stage.   When schools do this, through individual instructional coaches who observe and conference with teachers or through time for collaboration, teachers improve their teaching and students learn more.

However, having teachers meet with coaches or collaborate with colleagues takes time, and teacher time is exceptionally expensive.  School districts either have to buy this time in a teacher’s contract, pay substitutes to cover classes, or hire more staff to reduce teaching loads.  Despite that fact, research on professional development shows that opening up this time and having teachers supported during implementation of new skills is exceptionally important.  In an analysis of over 1,300 studies of professional development programs, researchers found that programs that were less than 14 hours had no impact on student achievement .   But if schools were able to cut down on some of their consultant costs by having teachers participate in free, open Coursera courses, schools might be able to buy more teacher time for deep learning experiences such as coaching or collaboration.

Of course, in all discussions about the role of online courses, it’s important to note that they can never stand alone as one’s only exposure to learning, something that’s been validated repeatedly .  However, there’s good reason to think these courses could be a nice addition to a school’s professional development tool kit.  –Allison Gulamhussein

Filed under: CPE,instruction,online learning,teachers — Tags: , — Allison @ 10:06 am





February 8, 2013

When ‘academic freedom’ really means ‘bad science’

Several state legislatures have introduced variations of a so-called “Academic Freedom Act” that purports to encourage openness and critical thinking in science classrooms. To critics of these laws — which include virtually every scientific professional organization and a slew of Nobel laureates — it is a thinly veiled effort to insert unscientific ideas into the science curriculum.

Similar bills have already been voted into law in a few states including Tennessee and Louisiana, and are pending in Arizona, Oklahoma among others. An attempt to introduce one in Colorado failed to make it out of committee. Among those testifying against it were our friends at the Colorado Association of School Boards.  The bills have different names but the language is surprisingly the same: they call on schools to “help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to become intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed students” and specifically name the teaching of “scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

There’s a reason for the uniformity: the model language for these acts originated with the Discovery Institute, a think tank that promotes “intelligent design.”  Intelligent design is an attempt to bring scientific legitimacy to the idea that a supreme hand was behind the origin of the universe and it should therefore be allowed to be taught in public schools.  Yet this notion was famously shot down by the 2005 Kitzmiller v Dover court decision that ruled intelligent design  “is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism” and has no place in the science classroom. And although the courts have allowed for other origin explanations like Intelligent Design to be taught in humanities courses, there remains a push to treat them as another scientific theory.

The new bills try to circumvent Kitzmiller through re-purposing. They don’t explicitly call for teaching intelligent design alongside evolution. Rather they propose to protect “academic freedom” and promote “critical thinking” in public school science classes. The bills further assert that the provisions “must not be construed to promote religious or nonreligious doctrine.”  Yet the specific inclusion of evolution and global warming as “scientific controversies” belies their words.

To be absolutely clear, there is no scientific controversy on these issues. There is plenty of political and ideological controversy, however.  How these topics are presented, then, means a lot when the goal is to develop scientifically literate students.

I wrote about this science-ideology conflict as it relates to evolution in the September 2012 American School Board Journal. The main point I make is that a scientific theory is not just an opinion or educated guess, but must meet rigorous standards of scientific evidence. Other such theories include plate tectonics and the idea that living things are made of cells, although these do not seem to be controversial to anyone.

Global warming has been debated for years, and not just in the political arena. Scientists have also disagreed on certain aspects. But the science community overwhelming agrees that the planet is warming and that human activity is at least partly to blame.  The University of Illinois-Chicago surveyed earth scientists in 2008 on these questions. Of the over 3,000 who responded, 90 percent agreed that “global temperatures have generally risen” compared to pre-1800s levels, and 82 percent reported that “human activity is a significant contributing factor.”  The consensus among those who specialize in climate science was even stronger:  96.2 percent agreed that temperatures are rising and 97.4 percent agree on the question of humans’ contribution.

The fact that the response is not 100 percent is all the evidence climate-change deniers need to argue that there is a scientific debate, and that the domination of climate change-accepters in the discipline is somehow a sign of academic bias. But such thinking is itself a denial of the scientific zietgeist with its emphasis on skepticism and questioning as a guard against bias.

Better for me to let astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explain:

Filed under: instruction,national standards,Public education — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 8:00 am





March 14, 2012

Is high school tough enough?

Is the high school curriculum tough enough? Education initiatives as broad as the Common Core State Standards, grant organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and legislative actions like ESEA reauthorization all raise the issue in some way. All of these initiatives agree that high schools should produce “college and career-ready graduates,” and that “a rigorous curriculum” is the way to do so.

Beyond that, the picture gets murky. What do those two phrases mean? How do we determine what makes a prepared high school graduate, and how do we know if the current high school curriculum produces them?

The following facts should raise some concerns:

  • Almost two-fifths of high school graduates “are not adequately prepared” by their high school education for entry-level jobs or college-level courses, according to a survey of college instructors and employers (Peter D. Hart Research Associates, 2005).
  • Many low-income schools lack access to a rigorous high school curriculum by any definition. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights Data recently reported that 3,000 high schools serving nearly 500,000 students offer no classes in Algebra II, a key subject encompassed by the SAT and other indicators of college readiness (OCR, 2011).

If this is the case, what kind of high school curriculum would produce prepared graduates? The research has focused on four popular strategies: AP courses, higher math courses, dual enrollment programs, and early college high schools. Most studies are correlative, and most simply measure graduates’ success in college. But it’s been well established that graduates entering good jobs need the same skills as graduates entering college, so the findings can be instructive when considering career-readiness, too. Read the Center for Public Education’s new report, “Is high school tough enough?” for some key lessons about these popular strategies. –Rebecca St. Andrie






January 4, 2011

History lessons

We Americans love to argue about what students should be taught. Witness last year’s fisticuffs in Texas over revisions to the state social studies curriculum – a debate that became a national story for months.  But while we’ll go to the mat over what to include and what to leave out, once the dust settles we all agree that the facts should be, well, factual.  Unfortunately for Virginia students, that’s apparently too much to expect. 

History textbooks approved by the Virginia Board of Education were recently outed as, shall we say, accuracy challenged.  The first tip off was an eye-popping statement in the state-approved 4th grade textbook that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

 That so? According to the Washington Post:

 The author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian but has written several books, said she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Let’s see. Information found on the Internet from a potentially biased source … aren’t these red flags we should be teaching 4th graders to watch out for? We certainly shouldn’t have to teach these lessons to authors and publishers of history textbooks, too.  

The state immediately asked for a review of the textbooks in question. The state reviewers, who unlike the author were trained historians, documented numerous mistakes. Many of these were relatively innocuous like misspelled names. Still others gave a skewed picture of events, for example, grossly understating casualties in the Battle of Bull Run, or claiming that Sir Walter Raleigh was in Roanoke Island (he wasn’t).  Regardless of their relative significance, teachers, students, parents and the public expect facts presented in textbooks to be accurate.

How did so many mistakes make it through the review process? Part of the problem is the process itself. In Virginia, potential textbooks are reviewed by teams of classroom teachers who recommend for or against adoption.  A teacher-based review makes sense: teachers are well-positioned to evaluate whether textbooks are readable for the intended grade level and offer good, rich teachable material. But there also needs to be assurance that the content itself is based on solid scholarship, and Virginia does not require a review by subject specialists.

We can’t absolve the publisher from their responsibility, either. Choosing a non-academic as the principal author isn’t itself a bad decision.  Textbooks, especially those intended for elementary students, can really benefit from good storytelling.  But if the author is not a scholar, the publisher needs to at least have a thorough scholarly review process in place.

The Virginia assembly will soon be considering a new process for textbook adoption in order to prevent further embarrassments.  An early proposal calls for shifting the fact-checking burden to publishers. It’s a good first move, but I would hope that the state will also provide scholarly back up in its own review process as an additional check on the system. After all, this is one history lesson we don’t want to repeat. – Patte Barth

Filed under: instruction — Tags: , — Patte Barth @ 3:00 pm





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