Let's do a better job of teaching teachers

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 20, 2014 - 6:17 PM

Once again, quality study shows education programs need work.

A national assessment of teacher preparation predictably ruffled the feathers of the leaders of more than a few colleges locally and around the nation last week. For the second consecutive year, the nonprofit National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) gave poor marks to most education programs for lacking strong entrance requirements and more-rigorous coursework.

The NCTQ released rankings for 1,668 teaching programs and said that most need to do a better job — particularly in training elementary school educators. Out of that total, the organization ranked 15 elementary and 20 secondary teacher preparation schools in Minnesota, but only four received top ratings.

Upset by those conclusions, some leaders of teaching colleges questioned NCTQ’s methodology, arguing that the assessments were made without site visits. Some of those concerns may be valid. But NCTQ isn’t alone in its assessment. Numerous other studies and testimonials from graduates and superintendents during the past decade reached the same conclusion: Many American schools of education do a mediocre job of preparing teachers for today’s classrooms.

That’s why alternative training and licensure options and efforts to revamp existing college education programs are growing across the nation.

So instead of refusing to participate or complaining about being evaluated, more of the schools should channel that energy into revising programs to better serve their own students and the young people their graduates want to teach.

In that spirit, the training programs could look to the schools that received top rankings as models. The University of Minnesota, Morris; Minnesota State University, Mankato; Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, and St. Olaf College in Northfield were among the highly rated institutions, according to the council’s report.

Another promising effort to improve student instruction is the Bush Foundation’s Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, which works with 14 higher education institutions in Minnesota and North and South Dakota. Partners in the effort agreed to improve their recruiting, preparation and support of education students and to use data to measure their performance.

Earlier this year, President Obama asked his Education Department to develop a plan to strengthen teacher-prep programs. Those federal rules are expected to be issued this summer and in place by next year. And in Minnesota, concerns about teacher quality led to legislation that requires school districts to begin evaluating teachers, starting this fall.

The problem is real, and as education scholar Arthur Levine argues, it merits a two-pronged approach — coming up with quality alternatives and redesigning current programs.

Over 90 percent of new teachers are still educated at universities, according to Levine, and therefore universities are where future teachers are and where important resources remain. In addition to education faculty, teacher-prep programs at universities expose future teachers to faculty in fields such as math, history, physics and English.

Levine, former president of Teachers College, Columbia University who now heads the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, argues that states can jump-start the process of building good alternative programs and repairing those existing programs that need it. States can review current teacher education programs by closing the bad ones and investing in the strong ones.

That brand of reform is what’s needed — not continued resistance to evaluation. NCTQ developed its methods over a period of years, relying on a review of course descriptions, syllabuses, students-teacher observation instruments and other material. Some institution officials criticized the methods and fought not to participate.

Last year, Minnesota’s MnSCU system was among them. So the council went to court to get the information and won. “Tremendously uncooperative” is how Kate Walsh, president of the council, described those institutions that refused to share textbooks or course descriptions.

Schools should actually welcome the scrutiny. Improving teacher preparation is a worthy goal, and it’s key to improving achievement in our schools.

  • A national problem

    “Given the increasing knowledge and skills expected of teachers, it is indeed disappointing that we could not identify more exemplary programs in Minnesota. However, Minnesota is by no means unique … The dearth of high-quality [teacher education] programs is a national problem that public-school educators, state policymakers and advocates, working alongside higher education, must solve together. ’’

    KATE WALSH, president of the Washington D.C.- based National Council on Teacher Quality

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