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Teacher training schools dispute study’s ‘grades,’ data and methodology

If it sounds like opposing camps are squaring off, it should, because colleges of education are increasingly under pressure.

lecture hall
Whether the concerns of traditional teacher prep programs about the NCTQ rating are borne out, there is widespread agreement that change is needed.

Last week, the Minnesota colleges that train all but a handful of the state’s K-12 teachers successfully lobbied to end a 4-year-old agreement that made it easier to place alternatively trained teachers in local classrooms. This week, many of the established institutions earned failing grades in a new report that declared teacher training “an industry of mediocrity.”

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) said that in general the programs don’t prepare graduates to enter the workforce, instead “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.”

Advocates: Study flawed

Advocates for the programs were quick to fire back, calling NCTQ’s data woefully inadequate and its methodology flawed.

“The information NCTQ has about our programs for making their ratings is grossly incomplete,” said Mistilina Sato, director of the University of Minnesota’s Educator Development and Research Center. “They decided to provide a rating for our institution even though we chose to not participate.”

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The report, which gives Minnesota’s programs slightly better than average marks, comes just days after the state Board of Teaching voted to deny Teach for America-Twin Cities a variance enabling its corps members to teach while qualifying for a full teacher’s license. The Minnesota Association of Colleges for Teacher Education was among those who successfully lobbied the board.

The board, which operates independently from the rest of the K-12 system, oversees and approves teacher-preparation programs in Minnesota. In the moments leading up to last week’s vote, several of its members, including representatives of teacher training programs, indicated they think the state’s teacher corps receives exceptional training.

If it sounds like opposing camps are squaring off, it should.

As education policy becomes more and more focused on teacher effectiveness, and alternative routes to a teacher’s license become more prevalent, colleges of education are increasingly under pressure.

No surprise then that the NCTQ’s survey, the first of its kind, was controversial long before it reached any conclusions. Founded in 2000, the nonprofit was intended to provide an alternative voice to existing teacher organizations.

When it began designing a system for assessing training programs, the pushback was immediate here and elsewhere. With cooperation not forthcoming, two years ago the group asked the University of Minnesota system and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) for extensive materials, including syllabi for courses.

Such course materials — thought to reveal a student’s exposure to content and rigor, among other things — are routinely reviewed in association with teacher licensure. But with the exception of St. Cloud State University, both state school systems refused to provide them.

Lawsuits over data release

MnSCU conceded that the documents were public under Minnesota’s Data Practices law, the state’s freedom of information statute, but also said its policy was to consider syllabi the intellectual property of its instructors, who are unionized. After some back and forth, NCTQ sued.

Last October, Ramsey County District Court Judge John H. Guthmann issued an order [PDF] agreeing with the nonprofit. The University of Minnesota then complied with the portion of the NCTQ request that was covered by the law. MNSCU, however, appealed. The case is pending.

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Minnesota’s public higher-ed systems weren’t the only ones that refused to turn over the records. In fact, only 10 percent of programs contacted responded voluntarily. All told, NCTQ filed similar lawsuits in seven states involving 57 institutions; one is being heard today in Missouri.

Meanwhile the group forged ahead, looking for alternate means of obtaining information. One of its critiques, for instance, is that teacher colleges are not selective enough when it comes to admitting promising students. NTCQ ultimately obtained information on selection criteria from many programs’ catalogs.

In the end, the report released earlier this week assigned ratings of up to four stars to 1,200 programs at 608 institutions — fewer than half the schools that train teachers. The programs graduate three-fourths of the 200,000 new teachers trained each year.

Fewer than 10 percent earned three or more stars, and only four received four stars. Some 14 percent got zero.

The listings were published Tuesday by U.S. News & World Report, along with a strongly worded editorial. However, the full report from NCTQ is easier to navigate.  

Only 4 percent of Minnesota’s traditional programs voluntarily submitted the data NCTQ requested. Private programs that graduate fewer than 20 teachers a year were not included in the review.

In Minnesota, programs at Gustavus Adolphus College, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, the University of Minnesota–Morris and the University of St. Thomas earned four or more stars.

Overall, Minnesota fared better than average on some of the elements rated. A third of the state’s programs restrict admission to the top half of each college-bound cohort, compared with 28 percent nationwide. And 40 percent of programs evaluated in Minnesota met the group’s goal for reading instruction, vs. the 29 percent nationally.

Every Minnesota high-school teacher prep program surveyed met NCTQ’s goals for teacher mastery of content. But every program at both the elementary and secondary level failed its goals for providing high-quality student teaching experiences. 

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The group measured the wrong things and did so with scanty data, according to administrators at the U of M’s College of Education and Human Development.

“Since we provided the minimum amount of information possible under the guidance of our Office of General Counsel (primarily course syllabi and assessment instruments), we expected that our ranking could be quite low in comparison to other institutions,” said its statement. “This ranking is a reflection of the limited data that NCTQ reviewed and their particular expectations about teacher education.”

The college is proud of its ratings from other bodies, the statement continued. “The U of M recently received the highest standard of accreditation by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), a national accrediting body for the U of M and other higher-education teacher preparation programs. NCATE recognized the U of M for exemplary performance in its partnership with local schools and the high quality experiences that our teacher candidates have in classrooms during their preparation program.”

Agreement on need for change

Whether the concerns of traditional teacher prep programs about the NCTQ rating are borne out, there is widespread agreement that change is needed.

In a preview of the report released Monday, the Center for American Progress noted that other groups, including the Council of Chief State School Officers and the American Federation of Teachers have also called for improvement.

Together with the NCTQ survey, “These reports correctly identify weak teacher-preparation programs as being key to the failure of public education to improve instruction for all students,” the center reported.

“According to recent figures, nearly a third of the U.S. teaching workforce is in its first five years on the job, which underscores the importance of having a high-quality pre-employment-training infrastructure to prepare new teachers.

“In order to meet students’ needs, new teachers — and there are 200,000 of them each year—must be able to offer competent instruction from the first day they set foot in the classroom,” it said. “Yet a survey of 500 new teachers by the American Federation of Teachers found that fewer than half thought that their teacher-training program adequately prepared them for their first year of teaching. Clearly, there is room to improve the quality of teacher education.”