Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Teacher Preparation Report- UVa Rated Poorly, but Why?

The National Council on Teacher Quality released a report this week on the quality of teacher preparation around the nation.  That certainly would grabbed people's attention but maybe that was the point.  Less than 10% of the programs were rated received 3 stars or higher.  UVa received 1.5 out of 4 stars in Secondary Education.  So what does that mean?  A question with no easy answer.  A better question is should that rating matter?  Yes but only a little.  Most media will report on this with some attention grabbing headline making UVa  or other schools look bad then move on.  What's more important is to recognize the purpose, scope and use of the report and then give it some context.

Providing Context
UVa is an outstanding institution and attracts some of this state's and nation's top scholars.  One must assume that the pool of teachers it produces are also of outstanding quality.  Having worked closely with many of these individuals and observing them both as student teachers and later once they joined the workforce, I have found they are well prepared for the job.  Some are as not quite as good as others but it cannot be an accident they enter our school ready to roll and versed in what to expect.  I believe that one can never really be "ready" for the first time you are on your own teaching your won students and all that means but if I had to choose who to hire, knowing they are a UVa Curry School graduate would provide a great deal of confidence.  

But this report indicates something different.  So context is important.  A closer look finds that this report doesn't really evaluate the process or results of these programs.   I give them credit for being thorough.  Maybe overly so.  Somewhere lost among the graphs and endless charts and fingerpointingmight  even be something of worth.   There was this tidbit from the exective summary:
 "Through an exhaustive and unprecedented examination of how these schools operate, the Review finds they 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."    
So what you are saying is they stink?
The stated purpose for this report is "providing information that aspiring teachers and school leaders need to become strategic consumers and that institutions and states need in order to rapidly improve how tomorrow’s teachers are trained."   The authors of this report have what seems a laudable goal but a funny way of achieving it.  It proceeds to beat up just about every institution and would seem to do more to undermine confidence in these programs rather than to foster improvement.  Maybe that is the intent?  It focuses in on how programs hold up to a narrow list of predetermined criteria.  Many of which might indicate the NCTQ has an agenda for certain reforms and wishes to push schools in that direction.  What's less apparent is whether or not that agenda mirrors that of other corporate style measures often linked to such critical reports.  The TUs executive summary of the report would read something like this:  "Eh."

 Linda Darling-Hammond had a bit more to say and called the whole thing "nonsense"   She is not alone and there is also no shortage of other critics of the NCTQ or this study.  When word broke that U.S. News was planning to rate teacher preparation programs and would rely on the NCTQ to produce those ratings,  35 chief academic officers from the education schools of the Association of American Universities signed a letter adressed to the magazine's editor expressing concerns about the methods being used. 
That ought to say something about context.

OK, so  clear the NCTQ thinks all but 4 are bad.
If I were brutally honest I'd say that this is one of those reports from some group of think tankers who seem to exist solely for producing such reports.  A lot of time and energy went into this and it is not totally baseless, probably even has some merit as a tool for improvement.  But as a teacher I don't have much use for people who don't truly understand what we do and like to spend time explaining what we need to change.  They seem either disinterested or too busy examing education on paper to bother getting boots on the ground and engaging with teachers and people in schools.  Maybe that is too dismissive but it is a position built on long experience with reports and reformers.  I'd point out that they didn't visit the schools they rated, didn't look at how teachers produced by schools were performing in their job and didn't really do much in terms of providing real world substance to back up their low ratings.    But they probably sold some magazines and generated some web traffic.

Is UVa Doing a God Job?
Yes.  I've cooperated with 3 student teachers and 5 or 6 practicum students from UVa over the years.  Without exception they were enthusiastic, hard working and willing to learn.  Professionally they were about as well prepared as one could be in terms of methods and pedagogy.   That together with UVa's solid content programs meant they were they were much farther along than I was in my own career at that point.  UVa has a an strong reputation in our community and is known for turning out some of the best educators around. 

The Curry School students I encounter are as ready as they can be.  It is true some are better than others and some will not choose to remain or even stick with teaching.   Even people at Curry would ackowledge the school has flaws and room for improvement.  But students there are given every opportunity to succeed and that is thanks to the knowledge, skills and experience afforded to them through proven methods.  Curry is proactive and innovative but stays grounded where the rubber meets the road.  So to place stock in a rating of 1.5 out of 4 is kind of silly.

So why the lackluster rating?  The report doesn't really assess performance.  It instead looked at a slate of criteria centered around the Curriculum, Syllabi and Admissions process of these institutions.  The report stated "we are setting in place market forces that will spur underachieving programs to recognize their shortcomings and adopt methods used by the high scorers".  This is a very telling statement and reveals that the report is an effort to spur action.   The NCTQ seems to suggest things be done a certain way.  And the only way to improve is to cater to the criteria being rated.  

The goal of any teacher prep program is to prepare new teachers for rapidly changing reform oriented professional world they will ener.  There's simply is no way to standardize how to effectiveley do this. Nor should there be.  Schools should constantly assess what they teach, how they teach it and ways to improve.  But undermining their support doesn't and won't aid them in that process.  Any report worth a hoot would connect what it measures to program quality. 

What is Being Rated
 A whole bunch of things but they are hidden under and avalanche of data and useless findings. Sometimes the larger something is the less productive it is.   The main things measured all fall under four main headings. These are provided here in abridged form  and only the ones that apply to secondary appear below.  I've omitted the ones applying only to elementary or special education.

The talent teachers need
    Selection Criteria- The program screens for academic caliber in selecting teacher candidates.

What teachers should know
    Common Core High School Content- The program ensures that teacher candidates have the content preparation
    necessary to successfully teach to the Common Core State Standards.

What teachers should be able to do
    Classroom Management- The program trains teacher candidates to successfully manage classrooms.
    Lesson Planning- The program trains teacher candidates how to plan lessons.
    Assessment and Data- The program trains teacher candidates how to assess learning and use student performance 
    data to inform instruction.
    Equity-The program ensures that teacher candidates experience schools that are successful serving students who 
    have been traditionally underserved.
    Student Teaching- The program ensures that teacher candidates have a strong student teaching experience. 
    Secondary Methods- The program requires teacher candidates to practice instructional techniques specific to their 
    content area.

    Outcomes- The program and institution collect and monitor data on their graduates.
    Evidence of Effectiveness- The program's graduates have a positive impact on student learning. 

That stuff is important.  A quick review of the list makes clear that these things are great in principle but there is a disconnect to the list and whether or not the program produces people who can teach.  Sure raising the bar in terms of candidates and asking more from them iare tough to oppose but this is not a scientific process.   Schools and classrooms are dynamic environments and you need a great deal more than content and pedagogy to be successful and effective.   In our data oriented world I trust my eyes and my mind when I see someone work with students.   While studies and efforts intended to help better prepare future teachers are welcomed, the way it is currently being done, as is the case with the NCTQ, are not and do little to help prepare educators.

Who is the NCTQ?
Who they are is really a matter of what they are.  So what exactly is the NCTQ?  Well that is not the easiest question in the world to answer.  As a starting point I looked at their own words:

The National Council on Teacher Quality advocates for reforms in a broad range of teacher policies at the federal, state and local levels in order to increase the number of effective teachers. In particular, we recognize the absence of much of the evidence necessary to make a compelling case for change and seek to fill that void with a research agenda that has direct and practical implications for policy. We are committed to lending transparency and increasing public awareness about the four sets of institutions that have the greatest impact on teacher quality: states, teacher preparation programs, school districts and teacher unions. 

Several years reading and researching reform movements have heightened my senses.  This report and many similar headline grabbing reports from the NCTQ emit echoes of corporate, profit driven, top heavy national policy reform that has done little to advance education over the past decade.  What is has done is likely the same as what this report will.  Undermine the very people doing all they can to help students.

The NCTQ even recommend capping the number of licenses issued in each state.  Yep they want to reward stronger teacher prep programs by allotting them more licenses. "Programs would not be prohibited from admitting as many candidates as they choose, but they would not be able to assure candidates that a license and job in the state will be waiting for them."  Teaching is collaboration not competition.  The NCTQ doesn't get that.  Efforts to train highly effective teachers and promote teacher quality shouldn't do the opposite.    Teacher training matters.  But I don't think this study does. 

Becoming a great teacher
My advice to those seeking to pursue a career in education and doing so at one of these instittuions is don't pay too much attention to all this white noise.  Instead put your back, mind and heart into the hard work of getting ready to be a teacher.   Because it doesn't get any easier once you start.  Al these schools are not created equal.  But if you find the right one for you and focus on making the most of your time there, you'll be just fine.  And if enough people like you continue to do just that, then the nation will be fine too. 

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