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Colorado’s teacher prep policy gets a D

Colorado may be on the leading edge of teacher effectiveness legislation, but state policy governing teacher training programs gets a D.

At least that’s the conclusion of researchers with the National Council on Teacher Quality, which reviewed teacher preparation policies in every state for the organization’s 2012 State Teacher Policy Yearbook.

The report, released today, doesn’t give Colorado glowing reviews on any piece of its teacher education system. However, not one state got an A in the 2012 report. Four states earned a B-, which was the highest grade earned by any state.

And critics of reports issued by the National Council on Teacher Quality and the data their researchers use are not hard to find. University of Northern Colorado Dean of the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences Eugene Sheehan said the NCTQ has built up a reputation for itself not unlike the Kardashians or disgraced bicyclist Lance Armstrong.

Meanwhile, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) on Friday issued a strongly worded condemnation of the teacher prep policy rankings. The organization questions its efficacy, methodology and accuracy.

The organization finds the rankings and grading system “to be vastly inconsistent with the gold-standard of student performance measures, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Top-achieving states on the NAEP, such as Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Vermont, received grades of “C” or “D” from NCTQ. Yet, there is no known research base linking NCTQ’s criteria to improved teaching and learning outcomes, nor any cited in the report.”

Sheehan shared many of those concerns. Still, he pays close attention to the NCTQ rankings.

“Yes we do pay attention (to the rankings) because other people read them,” Sheehan said. “Most states over the years never get higher ratings on the criteria NCTQ develops. I literally mean never.”

Sheehan said NCTQ focuses more on inputs, while the state of Colorado is shifting to outputs. He agreed that schools of education in the state do need to do a better job tracking data about its graduates and how they’re doing in the teaching profession.

Colorado did improve over last year’s D- grade by the NCTQ.  The national average grade in 2012 was D+, up from a D in 2011.

“We do not grade on a curve,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president and managing director for state policy for the NCTQ.

Based in Washington, D.C., the NCTQ was founded in 2000 to “provide an alternative national voice to existing teacher organizations and to build the case for a comprehensive reform agenda that would challenge the current structure and regulation of the profession.” The non-profit describes itself as having a non-partisan school reform agenda aimed at bolstering the quality and status of the teaching profession.

“In the last couple years we have seen a lot of focus on teacher effectiveness for teachers already in the classroom,” said Jacobs. “Now states are starting to realize we also have to focus on the pipeline and making sure teachers are ready.”

State of teacher preparation policy in Colorado

The report concludes that Colorado should do more to:

  • Make sure it is only attracting – and accepting – top candidates into its teacher education programs;
  • Ensure that teachers-in-training have solid content area skills in math, reading instruction, science and social studies;
  • Provide elementary and secondary special educators with specialized training based on students’ ages; and
  • Build more accountability into the system.

The report pointed out that there have been no changes in policy governing teacher education in Colorado over the past year. Legislation on teacher licensing is expected to be introduced during the 2013 legislative session. But the shape of that bill and whether it will include teacher preparation isn’t known yet.

The report specifically encourages Colorado to raise the bar in terms of applicants accepted into schools of education.

“Looking to international examples, such top-performing countries as Finland and South Korea admit prospective teacher candidates from the top 10 percent of the college-going population,” the report states.

“While a bar that high is a long way from average standards in the United States, it seems reasonable and appropriate that states should limit access to teacher preparation programs to those who are in the top half of the college-going population in terms of academic achievement.”

Researchers pointed out that Colorado does not require prospective teachers to pass a test of academic proficiency as a criterion for admission to teacher preparation programs or any time thereafter.

To remedy this, the NCTQ suggests that Colorado:

  • Require that teacher preparation programs screen candidates for academic proficiency prior to admission;
  • Require that programs use a common admissions test normed to the general college-bound population; and
  • Consider requiring candidates to pass subject-matter tests as a condition of admission into teacher programs.

The report gives a sneak peak into another, more detailed analysis of the state’s teacher training programs to be released in April, indicating that 76 percent of them do not have sufficiently selective admissions criteria. That review, developed in collaboration with educators and vetted through 10 pilot studies, will address selectivity of candidates, content knowledge, practical experience and program outcomes at specific colleges and universities.

It’s likely the look at Colorado’s schools of education will mirror the findings in the policy report.

“State policy only needs to represent the floor,” Jacobs said. “But more often than not it represents the ceiling. Programs tend not to do much more than the minimum state requirements. That makes it all the more important that state requirements are strong.”

But Sheehan said focusing so heavily on policy – with few in-depth conversations with people in the state – creates a lopsided picture. He compared the NCTQ review to buying a house or a car based on blueprints alone.

The AACTE concurred that the report lacks an explanation of how and from whom data was collected. The organization said that state officials in Louisiana and California are already challenging the accuracy of NCTQ’s results.

Colorado teachers-in-training not ready for Common Core

As for state policy, Colorado fails to properly educate its elementary school teachers-in-training to deal with the Common Core State Standards, the NCTQ report found.

“Unfortunately, Colorado’s policies fail to ensure that elementary teacher candidates will have the subject-area knowledge necessary to teach to these standards,” the report states.

The NCTQ criticizes Colorado for not requiring a subject matter test that reports subscores in all areas. In addition, Colorado does not ensure that teachers will be adequately prepared in the science of reading instruction, described as a key element of the Common Core State Standards.

The fixes for this?

  • Require elementary teacher candidates to pass a subject-matter test designed to ensure sufficient content knowledge of all subjects;
  • Require teacher preparation programs to provide mathematics content specifically geared to the needs of elementary teachers and require candidates to pass a rigorous math assessment;
  • Require teacher candidates to pass a rigorous assessment in the science of reading instruction; and
  • Ensure that teacher preparation programs deliver a comprehensive program of study in broad liberal arts coursework.

The NCTQ review also says Colorado could do a better job making sure middle school teachers have training to deal with the needs of the tween set.

“Too many states, including Colorado, fail to distinguish the knowledge and skills needed by middle school teachers from those needed by an elementary teacher. Whether teaching a single subject in a departmentalized setting or teaching multiple subjects in a self- contained classroom, middle school teachers must be able to teach significantly more advanced content than what elementary teachers are expected to teach.”

Content knowledge needs boost

The report also finds that Colorado does not ensure that newly minted secondary teachers will be prepared to teach appropriate grade-level content. According to the report, secondary teacher candidates in Colorado can demonstrate content proficiency by completing 24 semester hours of credit as demonstrated through transcript evaluation or by passing a content assessment, the Praxis II or the PLACE, in the endorsement area.

“Now more than ever we need to make sure teachers actually know math, actually know science, actually know social studies,” Jacobs said. “We have seen a lot of states move forward on that area, but Colorado isn’t there yet.”

Colorado’s only science endorsement combines physics, biology, chemistry, earth and space science and environmental science, and the state only offers an endorsement in general social studies, the report found. Teachers with these licenses are not required to pass individual content tests for each discipline they are permitted to teach.

To shore up the state’s requirements around content knowledge for teachers the NCTQ recommends that Colorado:

  • Require subject matter testing for secondary teacher candidates;
  • Require secondary science teachers to pass a content test for each discipline they are licensed to teach; and
  • Require secondary social studies teachers to pass a content test for each discipline they are licensed to teach.

The report also gets on Colorado about the state’s failure to ensure that new special education teachers know the subject matter that they will be required to teach.

The report states: “Colorado only offers a generic K-12 special education certification, in addition to a license specifically for early childhood. Special education candidates must pass the same elementary education content test as general education elementary teachers.”

Jacobs described Colorado’s approach to special education as “outdated” since the training requirements are the same for a student who ultimately will teacher elementary aged special education students or those in high school.

The report recommends Colorado eliminate licenses for special education that do not differentiate between the preparation of elementary teachers and secondary teachers, provide a broad liberal arts program to elementary special education candidates and require that they pass the same content test as general education teachers, and ensure that secondary special education teachers possess adequate content knowledge.

Colorado could also do a better job providing high-quality experiences for teachers-in-training in real classrooms.

“Colorado not only fails to articulate any requirements for cooperating teachers,
but the state is also not specific about other aspects of student teaching. It only
 articulates that candidates must complete a minimum of 800 clock hours of field experience.”

The state should ensure that cooperating teachers have demonstrated evidence of effectiveness as measured by student learning; make the state’s teacher evaluation system the basis for selecting mentor teachers; and require teacher candidates to spend at least 10 weeks student teaching.

A category of the report called “low hanging fruit” outlines relatively easy steps Colorado could take now to have a big impact on the quality of its teacher preparation policies. It calls upon the state to require secondary teachers who obtain certification in general science or general social studies to pass individual content tests (or a composite test that reports individual subscores) for each discipline they will be
licensed to teach.

Reaction to the report from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education was added on Jan. 25. 

2012 State Teacher Policy Yearbook