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Distribution of ratings across programs nationally. Source: National Council on Teacher Quality.

An already-controversial new report from the advocacy group the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) argues that the vast majority of college- and university-level teacher training programs — including most in Colorado — are insufficiently preparing new teachers for the classroom.

“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,” the report states.

Of 1,200 elementary and secondary education training programs for which NCTQ awarded ratings on a four-star scale, no programs in Colorado were awarded more than two and a half stars.

The report ranked programs at 13 Colorado institutions, including 20 undergraduate and six graduate-level elementary and secondary education programs. Of those, only Colorado State University’s undergraduate secondary education program and the University of Colorado – Boulder’s undergraduate elementary education program were rated two and a half stars. The rest received ratings of two stars or below, “ratings that connote, at best, mediocrity,” the report states.

Eight of the state’s programs received no stars. “While these low-rated institutions certainly can produce good teachers, it is less by design than happenstance: a chance placement with a great mentor or assignment to a strong section of an otherwise weak course,” the report argues.

NCTQ’s effort to collect data on and then rate teacher training programs has been controversial from the start. Leaders of many educator training programs have raised concerns about the project’s methodology, arguing that the data that NCTQ collected cannot provide a complete picture of the training experience the schools offer.

Many education schools resisted supplying the data that NCTQ requested (which led to legal battles with some of the schools) and the amount and quality of data available varied from program to program. The University of Denver and the University of Northern Colorado both declined to provide NCTQ data; both schools were given ratings based on data the organization was able to obtain through independent channels.

While the report’s authors collected data on 16 different standards, they were able to base their ratings of all of the elementary and secondary programs included on just a few: selection criteria, content preparation and student teaching. Elementary education programs were also rated on early reading and elementary mathematics preparation. An average of 58 percent of the programs were able to be judged on all of the standards.

“We have created the largest database on teacher preparation ever assembled, with information from thousands of syllabi, textbooks, student teaching handbooks, student teacher observation instruments and other material,” the report says.

But Eugene Sheehan, dean of the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado, said that such a method judges only how well a school’s offerings adhere to a uniform and maybe questionable set of criteria rather than judging how well teaching methods work in practice.

“It’s like counting how many books you have in the library rather than counting the number of people who read them,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan also questioned some of the criteria that the NCTQ used to determine the quality of a program. For example, the report looks at whether a teacher training program draws its students from the top half of their classes academically.

“If you look at that criteria, only the top universities in the country would be training teachers and we’d be screening out many many minorities who would make great teachers,” he said.

Lorrie Shepard, dean of the School of Education and CU-Boulder, said that in addition to concerns about some of the criteria, some of the rules regarding whether a school’s program was counted as meeting NCTQ’s criteria muddle the picture. For example, raters used a single syllabus to judge whether CU-Boulder’s program met the requirements for early reading; had they looked at both required reading courses, Shepard said, raters would have seen that the program does meet the criteria.

“A pretty good and deep program could be denied points in their system,” Shepard said.

Colorado is in the midst of developing a system that will trace data about individual teachers from their training institutions to the schools where they teach and in turn linking them to their student’s outcome data. Deans at several Colorado education schools today said that the coming system will be a more useful tool for judging the effectiveness of teacher training and identifying areas for improvement. Several schools in Colorado, including the University of Northern Colorado and CU-Boulder, also internally track the trajectories of their students, including job placements and district evaluations of student teacher quality.

“Measuring the quality of teacher education is a critical job for the media and for watchdog groups,” said Gregory Anderson, dean of the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver. “But [NCTQ] isn’t doing that.”

The president of NCTQ, Kate Walsh, told reporters today that such criticisms amounted to making the perfect the enemy of the good. “We are looking 12 inches deep by looking at these documents, so our level of depth isn’t as anyone would ideally be looking,” she said. “But our 12-inch examination reveals a lot because there is so much dysfunction.”

In addition to publicizing the ratings, Walsh said that the data would soon be provided to school districts to allow them to screen candidates according to where they were trained. ”With this data, we are setting in place market forces that will spur underachieving programs to recognize their shortcomings and adopt methods used by the high scorers,” the report states.

But American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten questioned whether that approach would lead to better practice in educator training programs.

“It’s disappointing that for something as important as strengthening teacher preparation programs, NCTQ 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,” Weingarten said in a statement. “Best-of and worst-of lists always garner attention, so we understand why NCTQ would use that device. While its ‘do not enter’ consumer alerts will make the intended splash, it’s hard to see how it will help strengthen teacher preparation programs or elevate the teaching profession.”

Local funders of the project include the Anschutz Foundation and the Donnell-Kay Foundation, which also funds EdNews Colorado.

Read the full report on the council’s website, and ratings for Colorado programs are below (the triangular symbols denote zero stars and a “consumer alert”).

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