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University programs that train U.S. teachers get mediocre marks in first-ever ratings

The vast majority of the 1,430 education programs that prepare the nation’s K-12 teachers are mediocre, according to a first-ever ranking that immediately touched off a firestorm.

Released yesterday by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based advocacy group, the rankings are part of a $5 million project funded by major foundations. Education secretaries in 21 states have endorsed the report, but some universities and education experts quickly assailed the review as incomplete and inaccurate.

Programs at Furman, Lipscomb, Ohio State and Vanderbilt universities received the only “four-star” ratings, while some programs, including at George Washington University, received no stars, eliciting a warning from the council for prospective students to avoid them.

While debate swirls about the validity of the ratings of individual schools, there is broad agreement among educators and public officials – from Education Secretary Arne Duncan to governors to unions – that the country is failing to adequately train the 200,000 people who become teachers each year.

“We don’t know how to prepare teachers,” said Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University and author of a scathing critique of teacher preparation. “We can’t decide whether it’s a craft or a profession. Do you need a lot of education as you would in a profession, or do you need a little bit and then learn on the job, like a craft? I don’t know of any other profession that’s so uncertain about how to educate their professionals.”

Many education schools suffer from the same maladies, Levine said. “Admission standards are low, no connection between clinical work and academic work and some of the faculty haven’t been in a school for years,” he said.

The topic has gained urgency, with new research that shows teacher quality is the single most important factor inside a classroom that affects student learning. As baby boomers retire, classrooms increasingly have newly minted teachers at the helm.

Amy Grelck, 26, thought she was ready to teach after graduating from the education program at Illinois Wesleyan University in 2009. Then she stepped into a fifth-grade classroom.

“I was in shock, really,” said Grelck, whose undergraduate semester as a student teacher in an affluent school did not prepare her for her first full-time job teaching in a high-poverty classroom in Chambord, Ill. “I really loved the (university) program while I was in it. But I really felt like I needed more of the realities of teaching.”

Grelck was faced with a litany of things she didn’t know: How to group kids by ability and teach them math simultaneously; how to manage behavioral problems; how to use data, such as her students’ test scores, to tweak her instruction.

She leaned heavily on more experienced teachers at her school, who offered coaching and encouragement. “Nothing can really prepare you for that first year,” Grelck said. “But it definitely could have been a lot better if my program had been more focused on the realities that I was going to face.”

Some other professions have standardized systems and national exams to ensure consistency. Medical students, for example, undergo a four-year program and a residency before taking a state licensing exam and national board exams, all designed so new physicians have the same core knowledge and practical skills.

But teacher preparation programs vary from school to school, and each state sets its own licensing requirements. Most programs are run by universities. Others are run by nonprofit groups or school districts. They each have their own standards of admission and completion requirements.

A 2007 McKinsey study found that 23 percent of teachers graduated in the top third of their class, while that figure was 100 percent in Singapore, Finland and other countries whose students lead the world on international exams.

To improve quality, the American Federation of Teachers has proposed a rigorous professional exam for teachers, akin to the bar exam for lawyers, and wants universities to get more selective, requiring a minimum 3.0 grade-point average to enroll in teacher preparation programs and to graduate. The effort has stalled because of a lack of funding, AFT president Randi Weingarten said.

About half the states have agreed to raising admission standards to education programs, but only a handful have acted.

Legacy Comments1

"Which college field of study has the lowest standards and the highest grades. If you guessed “teaching,” you’d be right. That’s the conclusion of a new study from the conservative American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, “Grade Inflation for Education Majors and Low Standards for Teachers.” “Students who take education classes at universities receive significantly higher grades than students who take classes in every other academic discipline,”.......

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