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Complex, nuanced report is out on teacher-prep quality

On Tuesday, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released its second report on the quality of teacher-preparation programs nationwide. If you didn’t notice, that’s probably because, compared to the release of last year’s report, there has been virtually no controversy about this one.

Nor has there been a heck of a lot of change in the ratings, with one exception: Stand-alone alternative certification programs — that is, those that operate independent of colleges and universities — fared poorly.

While some half a dozen Teach for America preparation sites fell into this category, the vast majority were private programs and the majority were in Texas, which allows for-profit certification programs.

No bottom-line takeaway

Overall, the report is so nuanced it’s impossible to give you one bottom-line takeaway. There are multiple measures, and individual schools can do quite well on some and very poorly on others. Also, institutions’ quality can vary widely by individual program.

One of those measures: Graduate passage rates on teacher licensure exams. This spring, MinnPost published this data for Minnesota institutions, many of which were pushing for an end to the test.

For general takeaways this year, public-education advocates might do well to look at the outcomes by policy topic. For instance, most of the state scored quite poorly in student teaching. Also weak: Colleges’ willingness to use student outcomes to evaluate their programs’ effectiveness.

Some programs independently have taken great strides in this department — particularly the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. And a bill that would have mandated the placement of student teachers in classrooms helmed by teachers rated effective died during the 2014 session of the Legislature.

Pitched battle before 2013 report

You don’t remember the 2013 report? Perhaps that’s because it was downright anti-climactic in comparison to the pitched battle that preceded it.

When virtually none of the state public teacher-prep colleges agreed to participate voluntarily, the NCTQ sought syllabi and other information through state freedom of information loss. With the exception of the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities and St. Cloud State University, the public institutions dug in.

The whole mess ended up in the courts. A Ramsey County District Court judge agreed with NCTQ, which got documents describing what the colleges taught.

The resulting report wasn’t kind to Minnesota overall. And much of the ensuing din had some of the schools protesting that they were evaluated using insufficient information.

Of course, Minnesota education colleges were not used to being evaluated based on their outcomes, much less challenged by some upstart outfit that did not hail from a state so proud of its education system.

After the release of the first report, NCT Q held a forum in which schools could challenge the ratings. The group could then respond publicly. No Minnesota institution chose to participate, according to NCTQ.

Two submitted materials this time

Two public programs did volunteer to submit materials for the 2014 ratings, however. Minnesota State-Mankato submitted new materials, and its scores for student teaching went up. Winona State’s outcomes increased as well after it supplied materials.

Since the first report, the White House has begun calling for a teacher-prep program ratings system that would use student outcome data. If President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have their way, eventually schools will have to gather and publicize data on effectiveness.

In this year’s report, six Minnesota institutions earned “top ranked” status, a distinction bestowed on 107 institutions across the country. They were the University of Minnesota – Duluth, the University of Minnesota – Morris, the University of St. Thomas, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Olaf College and University of Northwestern – St. Paul.

Of the 39 Minnesota teacher-prep programs evaluated, 15 scored high enough to have some national ranking.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/18/2014 - 11:41 am.

    So, we know what the worst are.

    What is still missing is good hard data on what the students of the teachers graduating from different institutions learn; how effective teacher education actually is.
    What can teachers graduating from the good programs DO in direct observational terms that the graduates from poor programs can’t?

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/18/2014 - 04:25 pm.

    I view it as an art form

    Paul Brandon’s semi-rhetorical question is an excellent one, to which I don’t believe there’s a simple answer. My own brief take on it is that teaching is an art, and like many another art form, it combines skills and preparation with talent, and by “talent,” I’m talking about an ability to connect with a student in a way that’s interpersonal without being overly emotional. A good teacher will make a student feel like the lesson has been prepared especially for that student, even when there are 26 other students in the room who feel precisely the same way.

    There are skills that can be taught to fledgling teachers that will make that kind of interaction easier to do, but the skills themselves are not enough. Having the skills without the rest is a lot like “paint by numbers.” Yes, the image is recognizable, but it’s crude, and only minimally effective.

    Preparation counts, as well. You have to know your subject well enough to be able to credibly answer the unexpected question from far left field. It helps a lot if a teacher is articulate enough, has mastered English well enough, to be able to approach a topic in multiple ways, using different terms and expressions, all aimed at the same kind of understanding on the part of the student.

    But I’m inclined to argue that really good teachers simply (and of course it’s not “simple,” else everyone could do it easily and well) connect with the kids in their classes in a way that leads that kid, or those kids, to WANT to hear what those really good teachers have to say. It has always struck me as a talent, much like musical talent, for which there’s no formulaic method of transfer.

    The last two student teachers I had – and this was many years ago – lacked that quality, and it was painful to watch them try to get a classroom full of 16-year-olds to join them on the intellectual journey of the lesson they’d prepared for that day. They’d have gotten better if they’d had 6 months of classroom practice instead of only 6 weeks (though it might not have been very good for their students), but I don’t believe either one of them would ever have become especially effective as a teacher. Neither one of them was able to “connect” in that ineffable way with the kids in the room.

    My own teacher prep program in the Dark Ages focused on bureaucratic technique, and skills (e.g., “classroom management”) being taught by gray eminences that hadn’t seen a high school classroom as a practitioner in decades. They were not useful. I spent a whole semester in one course – a required one at the time – studying the retirement system. At the time, I was 21 years of age and had yet to begin my career, much less bring it to a close.

    My own favorite book on teaching has an overly-grandiose title, but plenty of food for thought. It’s “The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life,” by Parker J. Palmer. It’s probably no longer in print, but two lines from the book seem relevant to this conversational thread. At least they work for me:

    “Teaching always takes place at the crossroads of the personal and the public, and if I want to teach well, I must learn to stand where these opposites intersect.

    Intellect works in concert with feeling, so if I hope to open my students’ minds, I must open their emotions as well.”

    My take from those sentences is that really effective teachers are genuine, by which I mean they don’t pretend to be other than who they are. While I was less profane in the classroom than I might have been in the teacher’s lounge, I otherwise pretty much spoke to my students the same way I spoke to my colleagues. In fact, one of my American Studies kids was overheard one day muttering to one of his peers, upon receipt of a sheet describing an essay assignment: “He writes just like he talks!”

  3. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 06/19/2014 - 07:09 am.

    Thank you Mr. Schoch for a great comment

    The wisdom of experience always shines through in what you have to say.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/19/2014 - 10:11 am.

    While I usually agree with Ray

    in this case I have reservations.
    My original comment was not rhetorical.
    My career was spent as a behavioral psychologist (I still regard myself as one).
    One of the things that I did was teach courses in behavioral principles to inservice teachers. They were well received.
    I am very wary of anything that smells like the classic ‘argument from ignorance’, although there are times when the best strategy is to withhold judgement. The fact that we cannot at present explain something does not make in inherently inexplicable.
    There is nothing in education that cannot -in principle- be quantified; teaching and learning are human behaviors; all the way down. While we are a long way from being able to analyze all the details, simply writing them off as an ‘art’ is begging the question, unless by ‘art’ you simply mean an activity that has not yet been properly analyzed.
    While it is possible that some people are genetically predisposed (see Wade, Nicholas “A troublesome inheritance”) to behave in ways that makes them more effective teachers, this is still something that can, ultimately be quantified.
    {/rant}.

    A note on quantification:
    Most teachers regard themselves as being mostly positive in their interactions with their students.
    The first exercise that I had my teacher students do (and these were experienced teachers) was to actually record the number of positive and negative comments that they made. They were surprised to find that they were for the most part not as positive as they thought that they were. The result was that they increased their relative frequency of positive comments (I had them repeat the observations).

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/19/2014 - 02:05 pm.

    It was surprising that the U f MN-Twin Cities campus education programs did not rank among the top ones in this report–is that because teachers there train in a graduate, not an undergraduate, program? Or, are the teachers they produce at the main University campus really that bad?

    Which leads to my second, more important, question: Just who are the folks at this Council on Teacher Quality? Is the Council a governmental entity? Apparently it’s not connected to any legitimate accreditation entity. Is it connected to teacher reform (the people who pitch charter schools, removal of public teacher tenure, judgment of teacher quality based on student performance on tests, etc.)? Who funds it? What explains the low response rate to their second-annual (and first-annual) survey?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/19/2014 - 05:11 pm.

      It’s an independent group

      See: http://www.nctq.org/about/

      It’s a nonpolitical group; it does not appear to be connected to the charter (anti public) school, anti union establishment.

      As you surmise, the U was probably left out because it is not primarily in the teacher training business — it’s programs are specialized graduate programs more involved in research.

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