University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Teacher Prep Programs Come Under Scrutiny in AR and Nationwide

In The View from the OEP on June 25, 2013 at 10:16 am

Over a month after it began, the debate on traditional versus alternative teacher preparation in Arkansas is still going strong. The number of op-eds in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette on the topic is up to five now, with the original post by University of Arkansas COEHP professors Drs. McComas and Goering, the response by OEP Director Dr. Ritter, and subsequent opinions from former UA professor Dr. Totten, UA COEHP Dean Tom Smith, and finally, yesterday, by teacher and alumnus of the UA M.A.T. program Shane Hampton.

Interestingly enough, the quality of traditional teacher preparation programs recently resurfaced as a hot topic on the national scene as well after last week’s release of the Teacher Prep Review by the National Center for Teacher Quality (NCTQ). The report has proved to be quite controversial and has been both lauded and critiqued by leaders in the field. While some of the criticism comes from representatives of traditional teacher preparation programs who do not want to be scrutinized, much of it is based on methodological concerns that we believe to be legitimate. To make this case, we will first give an overview of the scope and methods of the study and then we will tell you why we think you should be cautiously skeptical of the findings. You can find  more detailed descriptions of the report from NPR and the Wall Street Journal.

The Teacher Prep Review evaluates teacher preparation programs in over 1,100 colleges and universities, giving programs a rating ranging from 0 stars (Consumer Alert ) to 4 stars, with .5 star increments. The report’s stated purpose is to improve the quality of teacher preparation programs through market forces by providing information to consumers of such programs. Theoretically, aspiring teachers will use ratings to determine what program they will attend, and principals and superintendents will use them to inform their recruitment and hiring practices.

Teacher preparation programs are rated on eighteen standards that have been developed by NCTQ from research, previous pilot studies at the state-level, practices of high-performing nations and states, expert opinion, and “common sense.” The standards cover four major competency areas: selection, content preparation, professional skills, and outcomes.

NCTQ reviewers judged programs against these standards by examining documents, such as degree requirements, syllabi, and other course materials. Researchers were unable to visit and observe courses in teacher prep programs, and very few states have data systems that allow researchers to link the student performance data of teachers to the teacher preparation program they attended.

According to NCTQ’s findings, an increase in the quality of teacher prep programs is sorely needed: the report gave its highest rating, 4 stars, to only four programs. Of the 1,200 programs, only 105 (9%) made the “Honor Roll,” earning 3 or more stars. The vast majority of the programs earned 2.5 stars or less, signaling mediocrity at best.

In Arkansas, twenty public programs were rated in the NCTQ report. Similar to the national sample, 90% of Arkansas teacher preparation programs received 2.5 stars or less. Two programs received 3 stars, Arkansas Tech University’s and University of Central Arkansas’ undergraduate secondary programs, and one program received 0 stars, Southern Arkansas University’s graduate secondary program.

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Despite the “face validity” of this report (teacher preparation programs have long been criticized for being ineffective), the reaction has been divided. Some, like the Washington Post editorial board, praised the report, predicting that it may spur much-needed change in education schools. On the other side, education researchers across the ideological spectrum, including Linda Darling-Hammond, Bruce Baker, and Jay Greene, criticize the report for methodological flaws. One issue is the use of “document review” instead of more comprehensive observations or inspections that actually capture how the curriculum is being implemented. This methodology has often been compared to judging the quality of a restaurant by only reading the menu rather than actually eating the food. While we agree that looking at syllabi and degree requirements certainly does not give the whole picture of education program quality, it gives at least the plan of what will be taught (though we do not know whether that plan will be implemented well, poorly, or at all). The other common criticism is the weak research basis for the standards against which programs are being judged. Dr. Greene points out that there is very little sound research about effective teaching and teacher preparation, and by rating education school programs on “effectiveness,” the NCTQ report is claiming to know more than they actually do.

We agree that both the document review methodology and the unproven standards should make us doubt the validity of the ratings. A rating system is only as good as its criteria, and, if the criteria have no bearing on what we are actually trying to measure, the ratings will be misleading and potentially arbitrary. This is not to say that there is nothing to be learned from the NCTQ report. From this review, we have learned that there is wide variation in what is, at least nominally, being taught in education schools across the country, a point that, in itself, could have negative implications for teacher preparation. As a descriptive study, the Teacher Prep Report is a decent effort given practical limitations and impressive in its scope. As a meaningful consumer guide for future teachers and for school leaders, however, we believe the report falls short.

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