Nation & World

Teacher training – especially in California – gets poor grades

California has been trying to improve how it educates teachers for more than a decade, and some of its ideas have become a model for the rest of the country.

But the vast majority of teacher preparation programs in the state are still failing to adequately prepare teachers, according to a controversial new report Tuesday that rated more than 1,200 schools of education across the nation.

The ratings compiled by U.S. News and World Report and the National Council on Teacher Quality, a pro-accountability advocacy group, are part of an effort to spur improvements in teacher quality. The hope is that if education schools are pushed to do a better job of preparing teachers in the first place, the country can solve many of its academic problems.

“We have scratched an inch deep into the surface of these programs,” said Kate Walsh, the council’s president. “Just going that deep we find fundamental flaws and weaknesses. I wonder if you went a lot deeper what you would find.”

Education schools across the country fared poorly, but California, which is among the top six producers of teachers in the nation, was identified as one of the three worst states at training them. Ninety percent of the state’s elementary education programs included in the review received the lowest rating possible.

The ratings left schools of education reeling. Some states that turn out the most teachers, like Illinois State University and the California State University system, were rated poorly on the review’s scale of zero to four stars.

The ratings were based on standards, such as how the program teaches classroom management and whether it prepares teachers for the new Common Core State Standards. For the 162 programs identified as the weakest in the nation, the common thread was low admission criteria and poor student teaching requirements.

But critics say that had the council dug deeper, the group might have reached different conclusions.

“Unfortunately, the answer to the question of what we can learn about teacher education quality from thereportis ‘not much,’” Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University and chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, said in a statement. “Without reliable data related to what programs and their candidates actually do, the study is not useful for driving improvement.”

She said the report did not accurately reflect the results of ongoing reform efforts in California. In 1998, the state passed an ambitious law aimed at improving teacher preparation.

It allowed for multiple ways for teachers to earn a certificate and required that aspiring teachers take a performance test, which includes videotapes and extended essays, to prove they are ready to teach. One of those tests is the model for a new national exam adopted by 25 states.

But educators at some of California’s most popular schools of education have admitted there is little data showing their programs are any better. Some aspects of teacher preparation, like student teaching, still vary greatly by program. The passing score on the basic skills test the state uses for program admissions is low, just 123 out of a top score of 240.

“Until we have a system that gives us data and evidence of what’s going on, all we have are perceptions of people saying colleges and schools of education aren’t doing a good job,” Karen Gallagher, dean of the education school at University of Southern California, said in an interview earlier this year.

But gathering that information, which is usually based on student test scores, is difficult and fraught with problems.

Instead, the report used information like course syllabi, textbooks, and admissions requirements. They requested information from 2,400 programs in 1,130 institutions, but only 1,200 programs provided enough data to receive a complete program ranking. Schools in at least five states refused to hand over information until forced to by open-records requests.

In a July 2011, letter to the council, former chancellor of California State University, Charles Reed, questioned whether the data collected was a “valid approach for drawing conclusions about program quality and effectiveness.”

Walsh has defended the methods, and insisted that the review’s methodology was fair and unbiased.

The California State University system, which has educated 8 percent of the nation’s teachers in the last decade, received relatively low rankings, with 18 of its 39 programs receiving the lowest rating possible. The remaining 20 received a score between one and two-and-a-half stars.

On Tuesday, the executive vice chancellor of California State University, Ephraim P. Smith, said the system’s teacher preparation programs “have long been recognized for their innovation and excellence,” and pointed to a recent federally-commissioned report that highlighted the school’s work.

Although experts across education agree that teacher preparation must be improved, many doubt that the ratings will actually help.

“It’s disappointing that for something as important as strengthening teacher preparation programs, (the council) chose to use the gimmick of a four-star rating system without using professionally accepted standards, visiting any of the institutions or talking with any of the graduates,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union.