Teacher Prep Colleges Are Failing the Teachers

U.S. News's Teacher Prep Ratings give consumers a clear, factual way to evaluate important institutions.

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It's no secret to anyone who follows the national debate about education that the standards for training many of the nation's K-12 teachers are not high. But the problem is worse than we thought.

The new Teacher Prep Ratings make clear that the majority of colleges who turn out most of the country's 200,000 or so new teachers each year fail or barely meet the widely accepted standards of what it takes to train a good teacher.

Teacher programs are accepting many unqualified students and then failing to educate them in the best methods of teaching reading, math and other subjects. They are not training them in how to manage a classroom, or having them student-teach with well-qualified teachers.

Those are among the findings of an extensive survey of 2,400 teacher preparation programs housed in nearly 1,200 public and private universities across the country conducted by the National Center for Teacher Quality. These programs produce 99 percent of traditionally trained teachers and include both bachelor's and master's degrees for elementary and high school teachers.

U.S. News & World Report is excerpting that data in our Teacher Prep Ratings, which gives a top-level look and a star-rating to each of the programs. More in-depth information can be found at nctq.org. The rating is based on a basket of 18 standards developed by the Center over eight years of study and reflects the best research on what works. The Teacher Prep Ratings are also different from the U.S. News ranking of schools of education, which focuses on academic research and scholarship. This is about training K-12 classroom teachers.

Our purpose here, as with our other rankings and data products, is to give consumers a clear, factual way to evaluate important institutions. This information is useful to students who might be considering a career in teaching, and also to school districts looking to hire the best candidates. But it should also be of interest to parents of schoolchildren, and the policymakers charged with improving education, who want to know if we're getting the best trained teachers. Because while this data allows you to compare schools to each other and sort out the top performers, the obvious conclusion is that when it comes to “best” there simply aren't many winners. Only four of the 1,200 programs achieved a four-star rating.

And the problem may only get worse. The bar for public school students is about to be raised nationwide, through the new Common Core education standards that most states will begin implementing this year. The Center data show most programs are far behind in training teachers in Common Core subjects.

That's why these ratings should also spark a debate. The problems with the American public education system are well-documented. Average student performance is falling, economic and ethnic disparities are growing, even as numerous foreign countries are making gains. It is also well-documented that effective teachers are the most important factor in student success. Helping to build better teachers is in everyone's interest. But how?

Ratings such as these are, of course, only a start. But the depth of research, including looking at the syllabi and textbook choices for thousands of classes, is a true breakthrough. Take math, as one example. Almost no programs require any significant math mastery for teachers to be qualified to teach math. And this at a moment when so much of the nation is beginning to focus on the critical importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects as a pathway to good jobs and an issue of national competitiveness.

The lack of rigor in so many American teacher training programs, as this data make clear, stands in sharp contrast to other societies where teaching is a top-level profession, attracting the best undergraduate students, putting them through a tough curriculum, and testing their capabilities. In top performing countries, teachers are viewed as professionals, much like lawyers. U.S. programs are usually based on weak and sometimes politicized state-level standards and accreditation reviews that lack objective, outside observations. Of course, mediocre programs can still produce good teachers, but the odds of success seem unnecessarily low.

The insular nature of some of the teacher prep world becomes apparent in the course of the Center's research when many institutions, in an orchestrated fashion, declined to cooperate in providing data and allowing scrutiny of their programs. In several cases, the Center had to sue under public records law to acquire data that should have been freely available to the public. There seems to be a widely accepted view on the part of these institutions that they are doing a good job, when all other evidence points to the contrary.

The point of this project is not anti-teacher, nor anti-teacher college. Just the opposite.

Everyone will benefit from more and better data. The intent of these ratings is constructive: transparency and sound methodology will help drive better outcomes. Setting a bar spurs good enterprises to meet and exceed it. Daylight lets everyone see what progress is being made.

Better teacher colleges are in everyone's interest.

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