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Minnesota teacher-prep schools see mixed grades

  • Article by: Kim McGuire
  • Star Tribune
  • June 17, 2014 - 9:59 PM

Many of Minnesota’s teaching colleges could do more to prepare graduates to enter the classroom, a national research group pushing for greater accountability among teachers said Tuesday.

The National Council on Teacher Quality released rankings for 1,668 teaching-preparation programs, saying that most need to raise the bar for aspiring teachers, particularly those who want to teach elementary students. The rankings come at a time of intense national and state focus on teacher preparation and competency, particularly among lawmakers and education-reform groups.

In Minnesota, only 15 elementary and 20 secondary teacher-prep programs merited a national ranking. Some colleges declined to participate or limited their participation because of concerns about the council’s rankings, which were determined in part by published course requirements, class syllabi and training manuals.

“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,” said Kate Walsh, president of the nonprofit council, which is based in Washington, D.C. “The dearth of high-quality programs is a national problem that public-school educators, state policymakers and advocates, working alongside higher education, must solve together.”

In general, the council said despite a glut of teaching programs in the United States, very few can ensure that graduates have the knowledge and skills needed to teach school-based curriculum. It was particularly critical of most institutions’ student-teaching requirements and of math instruction for elementary teachers.

Still, the University of Minnesota, Morris; Minnesota State University, Mankato; Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, and St. Olaf College in Northfield were among the institutions that got top marks from the council.

The University of Minnesota, Morris, was singled out for its work in preparing candidates to teach reading to elementary students — a deficiency among most teacher-preparation programs, according to the council’s report.

“We are proud of our literacy efforts, but … this is not something we set out to do, to follow the standards set by some organization,” said Bart Finzel, the university’s vice chancellor for academic affairs.

Many react warily

This is the second time the council has scrutinized teacher-preparation programs. Last year, colleges and universities across the country widely panned the council’s program ratings. In fact, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and higher institutions in 10 other states refused to comply with the council’s request for documents. The council sued MnSCU and won.

This year’s report got a wide range of reactions from teaching colleges.

Misty Sato, an associate professor with the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development, said she was surprised the U received a ranking from the group because its participation was limited. Its secondary-education program was ranked 265 and its program for elementary teachers was ranked 312 by the council.

“We got a ranking based on an incomplete data set,” she said. “We already have a rigorous accreditation program, and I don’t think this group adds value in terms of evaluating teacher programs.”

In April, President Obama called on the U.S. Department of Education to come up with a plan to strengthen teacher-preparation programs. Those federal rules are expected to be issued this summer and in place by next year.

In Minnesota, concerns about teacher quality led to legislation in 2011 that requires school districts to begin evaluating teachers starting in 2014-15.

This year, legislators approved giving aspiring teachers more flexibility to pass what is widely known as the “basic skills exam.”

Some Minnesota teaching colleges, legislators and school administrators were pushing to scrap the test and replace it with what they called a more meaningful test of teacher skills. Walsh, who was in St. Paul for a conference while legislators were debating that, called that idea “a step backwards.”

“It’s basic reading, writing and math,” she said at the time. “That test should be an entry test for teachers, not an exit test.”

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469

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