Telegram: Opinion: Crisis in Teacher Prep/Training


June 25, 2014

By Liam Kerr and John Griffin

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has released its second annual Teacher Prep Review, the first and only report to substantively rank teacher education programs across the country.

For Massachusetts, the findings are especially dire. In a state that prizes its quality education, all of our education schools perform below average. The review’s implications are clear: Holding our schools of education accountable to ambitious standards is crucial to improving education in the schools that need it most.

Progress requires constant evaluation. To set ambitious goals and work toward improvement, institutions first must know their strengths and weaknesses.

America’s medical profession understands this well. The 1910 Flexner Report revolutionized American medicine by critically evaluating the country’s medical schools. For the first time in history, prospective students could easily discern the quality of medical schools, and soon those schools were competing to raise the level of instruction and attract the brightest students. Now, our doctors are among the best-trained in the world. Today, our education schools stand at a similar crossroads. For years, we have expected standards-based excellence from our students and their teachers, but not from our schools of education.

This lack of accountability means that new teachers and, by extension, their students, often leave school unprepared for classroom realities.

Education is supposed to create equal opportunity for all students — but that won’t happen unless we adequately equip teachers to help realize that vision.

Until the NCTQ’s 2013 and 2014 reports, prospective students had no way of discerning the quality of the schools they sought to attend, and school districts looking to hire new teachers had no way to judge the quality of education an applicant may have received. Moreover, education schools had no means of comparing themselves to their peers in order to make well-informed decisions on how to improve.

The NCTQ’s reviews are a powerful resource, but their results are alarming. By and large, they find that education schools are woefully underpreparing future teachers. Practical training is rare. Only 6 percent of programs nationwide place student-teachers in classrooms taught by proven, effective educators, while fewer than half of all programs prepare candidates to teach content consistent with the new Common Core standards. Three-fourths of programs fail to teach candidates best strategies for instruction in reading. Standards across the board are low to nonexistent.

Districts with high dropout rates and teacher attrition are severely impacted by underprepared new teachers. Students assigned to those teachers fall behind an average of six months in crucial learning time compared to their peers. The opportunity gap is tangible, amounting to a 30-million-word vocabulary gap between children of welfare parents and their wealthier peers — a gap that only widens when teachers aren’t taught the best strategies for reading instruction.

Developing a better education for our teachers is more than good policy — it’s a matter of social justice.

Measurable standards also help to provide the teaching profession with the respect and stability it deserves. Many new teachers find themselves ill-prepared, underpaid, and always on the brink of losing their jobs.

In high-performing countries like Singapore and Finland, teachers are paid more, prepared better, and afforded greater respect. Their schools of education are also much more rigorous, limiting admission to at least the top third of graduating high school classes.

In Massachusetts, by contrast, only a quarter of education schools limit admissions to even the top half of graduating classes. The first step toward making education schools more rigorous is to hold them accountable to high standards of instruction, which is exactly what the NCTQ has set out to do.

By combining a system of high accountability with the benefits and respect that teaching deserves, we can make the profession the best it can be.

Today, we’re setting teachers up for years of anxiety and exhaustion. Especially in urban and high-need districts, teaching is rife with unpredictable challenges. We owe our educators the preparation they need to deal with the issues we can predict, and we owe our students teachers who are trained to help them overcome difficult educational obstacles.

Too often, education reform is cast as unfairly placing the onus of accountability on teachers, but by holding our education schools to high standards of preparation — indeed, to any standard at all — we can work toward equal opportunity without sacrificing teachers’ rights. We can give teachers the tools to better serve their students and improve those teachers’ lives in the process.

Liam Kerr is the state director of Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts. John Griffin, a rising junior at Harvard, is a policy fellow at DFER.

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