Depressing News About Ed Schools

Discussions of how to address poor student learning at the college level often end with fingers pointed, not at higher education, but at the K-12 sector: Universities, the story goes, can do only so much with students coming in with poor K-12 educations. But this objection fails, for many of K-12's defects can be traced to university teachers' colleges.

So argues a national study just issued by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). Titled "Teacher Prep Review" and produced in partnership with U.S. News & World Report, the study finds that university teacher-education programs abound in "mediocrity," credentialing K-12 teachers who are fatally unprepared for their tasks.

NCTQ rated 1,200 programs that train the majority of K-12 teachers, finding only four universities -- Lipscomb, Vanderbilt, Furman, and Ohio State University-- that merit its top ranking of four stars. Worse, the lion's share of the programs -- over 700 -- received two stars or fewer, which, according to the study, "connote, at best, mediocrity." Worse still, 162 university programs received no stars, meaning they fail to provide "even minimal training."

The report's criteria run the gamut -- from content, to teaching methods, to standards. For example, while the nation cries out for more graduates in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math), 70 percent of undergraduate elementary-education programs do not require even one course in basic science. Only one in nine elementary programs and just over one-third of high-school programs were shown to train teachers in content at the "level necessary to teach the new Common Core State Standards," which have been adopted by nearly every state in the country.

Nearly 75 percent of elementary-school teacher programs fail to teach proven methods of reading instruction. Instead, education schools often counsel teacher candidates to develop their "own unique approach" to teaching reading -- even though proven methods can reduce the proportion of students whose skills remain at substandard levels from 30 percent to 10 percent. And only 7 percent of programs take steps to ensure that student teachers are placed in classrooms taught by proven, effective veteran teachers, depriving teachers-to-be of role models on which to pattern their own pedagogy.

All of these findings dovetail with those of the 2011 national survey of collegiate learning Academically Adrift, which reported that education majors (along with communications, social-work, and business majors) achieve the lowest increase in critical-thinking skills while in college. And to make matters worse, the NCTQ also finds that it is too easy to gain admission to our nation's teacher-preparation programs to begin with.

Only 27 percent of programs were found to restrict admission to the top half of college students. The remaining programs are less demanding, whereas education programs in the highest-performing countries restrict admission to the top third. Similarly, most graduate programs admit social-sciences and sciences candidates regardless of the degree to which they know the content in the subject areas they will be certified to teach.

Although some education-school defenders have raised questions about the NCTQ study, at least one prominent educational leader acknowledges the defects to which NCTQ points. While criticizing the study's methodology, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, confessed that "we agree with NCTQ on the need to improve teacher preparation."

It's time for our education schools to follow Weingarten's lead, drop any defensiveness, and address with proper urgency the real problems reported in the study.

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