Teacher prep falls short

To improve student learning in Ohio, and in other states, we need to improve the quality of our teaching force. Statistics don’t lie when it comes to the impact of teachers on children’s learning. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has observed that “having a high-quality teacher throughout elementary school can substantially offset or even eliminate the disadvantage of low socio-economic background.” Yet, according to a new report by the National Center for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) and US News and World Report too many of our new teachers enter the classroom unprepared. 

Over a century ago, Abraham Flexner provided a withering critique of the nation’s medical schools, which led to a transformation of a sub-standard system of doctor preparation into preparation programs that would become models of quality for the rest of the world. NCTQ wants to do the same thing for teacher preparation that Flexner did for medical training back in 1910.

Toward that end, NCTQ and US News and World Report have issued their Teacher Prep Review. The Review provides data on the 1,130 institutions that prepare 99 percent of the nation’s traditionally trained new teachers. Forty-six institutions in Ohio were included in the Review. The findings are not good. In fact, NCTQ warns that the nation’s teacher prep programs “have become an industry of mediocrity, churning out first-year teachers with classroom management skills and content knowledge inadequate to thrive in classrooms with ever-increasing ethnic and socioeconomic student diversity.”

The urgency to improve teacher preparation has never been greater. Teachers in Ohio, as across the nations, are facing increased demands in terms of their student needs (more poverty and rapidly changing demographics), more rigorous academic standards and expectations, and increased public scrutiny around professional performance. Add to this the fact that the teaching force itself is changing significantly through retirements and in demographics. Twenty-five years ago, if you asked a teacher how long she had been teaching, the most common response would have been 15 years. If you ask that some question today, the answer is just one year. Nationwide first-year teachers now teach around 1.5 million students every year, and the vast majority of these new teachers are woefully unprepared for the classroom.

Given all this, it comes as no great surprise that 24 state chiefs and 98 school district superintendents from across the country have endorsed the Review’s findings. In Ohio, endorsers include Eric Gordon (CEO of Cleveland Metropolitan School District), Lori Ward (superintendent of Dayton Public Schools), Mary Ronan (superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools), and the Fordham Institute.

Students taught by first year teachers lose ground in comparison to their peers taught by more seasoned teachers, and most of these novice teachers are placed in the classrooms with children who face the greatest academic deficits. It need not be this way. High-performing countries, such as Finland, South Korea and Singapore, have revitalized their teaching forces, and improved student achievement significantly over recent decades, by increasing the selectivity around who gets into teaching and dramatically upgrading the quality of training provided novice teachers.

Findings for Ohio include:

  • The Ohio State University was the only higher education institution in the country that earned more than three stars for both its elementary (3.5 stars) and secondary (4 stars) programs.
  • Marietta College and Ohio Northern University are on the Honor Roll, earning three out of four possible stars for their undergraduate secondary programs.
  • The vast majority of the state’s teacher preparation programs received mediocre ratings of one or two stars.
  • Three programs (Cleveland State’s undergraduate elementary and secondary programs and Kent State’s graduate secondary program) received a consumer alert.
  • Only 27 percent of elementary and secondary programs in Ohio restrict admissions to the top half of the college-going population, compared to 28 percent nationwide. High-performing countries recruit candidates from the top third of their college-going population.
  • Only four percent of Ohio’s elementary programs earn three or four stars for providing teacher candidates adequate content preparation. Forty-nine percent of Ohio secondary programs earned the top-rating of four stars.

NCTQ proposes a straightforward strategy for improving teacher preparation—“use the marketplace as the engine for change.” Specifically, NCTQ and US News and World Report (which has 20 million visitors a month to its website rating universities and colleges) are using the Teacher Prep Review to help prospective students, and their parents, make decisions about which education prep programs offer the best return for the tuition dollars invested. These ratings can also be used by school districts to inform their hiring decisions. This strategy, however, is not without challenges. NCTQ warns, “It is not just conceivable, but likely, that many aspiring teachers and school districts will not be able to locate a highly-rated program anywhere near them.”

Teacher preparation makes a difference, but our prospective teachers need better choices. Maybe this can be the “Flexner moment” for teacher training programs.

This piece originally appeared in Gongwer Tuesday, June 18.

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