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How well do Minnesota’s education programs prepare students to be teachers? It’s almost impossible to tell

There are no publicly available indicators showing which schools of education train excellent teachers. Or whether those new teachers actually end up in the classroom.

Teaching is the single largest profession in the country, and there are huge gaps in how educators are recruited, trained and kept in the classroom.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

In 2013, the education programs at Minnesota State University-Moorhead boasted a 100 percent employment rate for its graduates. A big, round number indeed — and only an incremental uptick from 2012 and 2011, when rates were 99 percent and 98 percent, respectively.

That’s a higher rate than the one posted by Harvard Law. It’s higher than the number of Ph.D.s from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that go straight into the workforce and the number of newly minted Carlson School MBAs with job offers.

Enviable or unbelievable? The fact that it’s impossible to say makes the claim a good starting point for a discussion of exactly how hard it is to evaluate outcomes of Minnesota’s teacher-training programs, and to probe whether they are recruiting and training the right teachers.

Teaching is the single largest profession in the country, and there are huge gaps in how educators are recruited, trained and kept in the classroom. A mountain of evidence shows that teacher quality is the single most important in-school contributor to student achievement. Yet there are no publicly available indicators showing which schools of education are training excellent teachers. Or whether those new teachers actually end up in the classroom — or stay there for any meaningful amount of time. 

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State surveys show that as recently as 2013, Minnesota colleges were training twice as many teachers in some specialties as there were jobs — and far too few for positions that schools clamor to fill. There's also a gap for potential teachers of color, who make up about 10 percent of the state’s education students but just 4 percent of licensed educators, according to state figures. The diversity of Minnesota's teacher corps has actually fallen slightly in recent years. 

Nationwide, policymakers and leaders of some teacher colleges estimate that half of education students graduate, with further attrition between the diploma and the classroom. Research shows about half of new teachers leave the profession within their first three years, suggesting that far too many candidates are admitted to education schools to begin with, and that many of those who make it to the classroom aren’t prepared enough. Compounding the challenges are tough new standards that teachers are being asked to help students meet. 

A year ago, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would require teacher colleges nationwide to begin compiling report cards containing information of interest to prospective students, such as graduation and employment rates, and helpful to schools and districts, such as data showing how well graduates are prepared to be a classroom teacher of record.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education has lobbied hard for the scrapping of the rule, which is due out in coming weeks. And earlier this year, representatives of its local affiliate, the Minnesota Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (MACTE), urged lawmakers here not to create a similar state reporting requirement. The desired information, they said both in testimony at the Capitol and interviews with MinnPost, is already readily available in the public domain.

Efforts to collect and share data are resisted 

Armed with that suggestion, MinnPost spent more than six months attempting to compile a basic portrait of the state’s teacher talent pipeline. But even on the cusp of the new rules, we found Minnesota’s public programs continue to resist efforts to collect and share meaningful data.

Indeed, the state’s marquee effort to track outcomes of students from preschool through college and into the work force — the multiyear, multimillion-dollar Statewide Longitudinal Education Data System (SLEDS) — does not track students in teacher-training programs.

And Minnesota’s new teacher evaluation law does not require school districts to report teacher-effectiveness evaluations to the state, so there is no way of determining where the most effective teachers are, much less where they were trained.

And so, for a high school graduate with dreams of working in the classroom, Minnesota State-Moorhead might be a terrific choice. It offers exceptionally reasonable tuition, small teacher-student ratios and streamlined pathways to some of the most in-demand credentials. But there’s no real way to know. 

A long list of caveats

The Moorhead employment rate — supplied by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU) — comes with a list of caveats that rivals a university course catalog in terms of length and complexity.

For starters, it’s based on graduates’ voluntary reports that they have obtained “related employment” where they are “using the knowledge and skills from the program/major” or for which “the program/major was a requirement.” Which could include anything from classroom teacher to tutor or child-care provider.

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Second, it only includes reports from grads who say they are “available for employment,” a much smaller number. From 2010 to 2013, Moorhead awarded 939 education degrees. Fewer than three-fourths — or 683 — recipients were reported as available for work.

And the number they report as employed is not limited to those graduates who passed state licensing exams, a smaller number still. Just 669 of total graduates passed all three basic skills tests required for licensure at the time.

So does that mean 71 percent of Moorhead grads go on to become licensed classroom teachers? Not necessarily. The numbers include 240 master’s degrees, which do not lead to licensure at Moorhead, as well as certificates that cause some grads to show up in the statistics more than once.

Graduation rate? MnSCU says that’s not a number it can calculate, because it’s not clear when students at different institutions officially begin their education studies. Moorhead’s university-wide four-year graduation rate ranges from 23 percent to 42 percent, depending on the method used to calculate it.

Nor do the numbers jibe with state employment figures, which show that two years after graduation 69 percent of all Minnesota education bachelor’s degree recipients — the point at which an initial teaching credential is often awarded — have jobs in the education sector. Another 10 percent work in social services.

So what are the chances an aspiring teacher can make an informed decision whether a given ed school is the right program to enroll in?

Data roadblocks

An organization that aims to give teachers a voice in policy issues, Educators 4 Excellence (E4E) last spring released a report on teacher diversity in Minnesota. After the working group that compiled the report ran into data roadblocks, E4E asked the state Legislature to require higher ed to report how well its students fare in terms of graduation, credentialing and employment.

“Anecdotally, we heard that most teachers were not selecting their training program based on any quality criteria,” says Madaline Edison, the Minnesota group’s founding director. “Not in the same way lawyers or doctors look for the programs that are the highest quality and that give them the best chance to find satisfying work.”

Not only does the lack of data cloud the problems with diversifying the teacher corps, it makes it hard to identify promising practices, she adds.

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“It deters our ability to learn from the programs that are really successful,” says Edison. “We don’t know which programs those are.”

Groups seek more reporting

Since then, both E4E and the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership (formerly the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership) have released reports that include calls for greater reporting and transparency. (Here is E4E's report, "Accelerating the Learning Curve: Re-envisioning the Teacher Preparation Experience.")

Saying the called-for report cards would spend tax dollars preparing redundant information, MACTE representatives offered three locations where they said the information was already easily accessible. None contain the information the aforementioned groups have asked for.

One was the Educator Preparation Program Application System, the online portal through which programs apply for permission to operate from the state Board of Teaching. Although the site is password protected, some institutions have placed their approval reports on their websites. The content is highly technical and does not describe outcomes.

The second is the national education school group’s Professional Education Data System, which periodically is used to publish reports that contain bird’s eye — and not terribly critical — overviews of teacher prep nationally. A password is required to call up specific information about a program.

The third dataset is the U.S. Department of Education’s Title II clearinghouse, the online source for information collected by federal law. Its contents are extensive, but again not useful for the purposes of evaluating individual program outcomes.

Using the federal database, for example, MinnPost was able to discern that during the last four years of reports, the number of teacher candidates of color enrolled in Minnesota institutions has hovered around 10 percent, while the number of non-white teachers is less than 4 percent.

But because the data only identifies “program completers” — a definition that differs significantly from graduates because some students complete, for example, specialty training but are not in a degree track — it is impossible to use the information to learn what percentage of enrollees finish a program. And because “completers” data is not broken down by race, you can’t tell how many are not white.

The federal data does reveal that over the last five years the number of students enrolled in Minnesota teacher prep programs has dropped by 40 percent, while the number of completers has remained more or less stagnant.

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Minnesota teacher education enrollees and completers, 2009–2013

There are a variety of possible explanations, ranging from the end of the last decade’s recession to the high debt, low pay and lack of prestige graduates can expect. And recent headlines have trumpeted a coming teacher shortage here and elsewhere.

But even if a prospective teacher were to crunch the numbers on the federal spreadsheet, they would still need to know to look at a teacher supply and demand report produced every two years by the Minnesota Department of Education to gauge their chances of finding work.

According to the most recent state report, in 2009-2010, Minnesota produced 1,179 elementary teachers yet had openings for only 709. Meanwhile, districts reported persistent shortages of bilingual teachers, special-ed teachers and teachers with math and science specialties.

In early August, MinnPost requested a number of datasets from MnSCU, whose seven publicly funded institutions train the largest number of new Minnesota teachers.

MnSCU said that many of the report card elements we sought, however, are not compiled. To evaluate its outcomes, we were told, the system collects data on licensure test passage and employment rates, information they indicated could be compiled easily.  A representative of MnSCU's teacher training programs inquired why we were seeking the information, repeatedly asking what “angle” a story would take and asserting doubt that the data could be interpreted accurately.

More than five weeks later, after repeated assurances that the data was forthcoming, MinnPost filed a formal request for the promised information under the Data Practices Act.  After more back and forth, we received the number of degrees and certificates granted by institution, the “related employment” numbers and a spreadsheet showing the rates at which MnSCU students pass licensure tests assessing their knowledge of their content areas.

Data didn't include certain passage rates

Missing were passage rates for the tests students most often fail, those assessing basic skills in math, reading and writing. During the 2014 legislative session, the teacher prep community successfully lobbied for the repeal of these tests, which were created by the state Board of Teaching in response to fears that a prior set of assessments was not rigorous enough.

The programs told lawmakers the exams were a barrier to licensing teachers of color, and released pass rates by race. However, MinnPost obtained a portion of the same report that had not been released publicly that showed that at more than half of Minnesota programs fewer than three in four graduates passed the tests on three or more tries.

During the same three-year window we use to report the employment data at the start of this story, at least 10,690 teacher candidates took at least one of the exams and — at most — 8,190 passed all three. Several institutions, including the relatively selective University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, had very high passage rates.

In addition to the sources of data the colleges pointed to in their testimony to lawmakers, several public and private entities track education data. The National Student Clearinghouse, for example, is a commercial service that crunches higher-ed datasets that include student identification numbers for colleges’ internal use.

DEED's numbers

Meanwhile, using student IDs and unemployment records, the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) has its own numbers regarding outcomes. The department doesn’t compile the numbers by institution, a move its data staff say MnSCU has argued against.

According to DEED, within two years of graduation, 69 percent of students who earned undergraduate credentials in the 2010-2011 academic year (the most recent year for which the entire cycle has been reported) found work in the education sector, also broadly defined. Another 10 percent end up in health care or social services.

The education employment rate increases to 89 percent for holders of graduate credentials.

Median pay for the 2,491 bachelors recipients starts just above $16 an hour and inches up to slightly more than $23 for special-ed teachers. The 3,829 graduate degree earners had median hourly wages ranging from $22 to $37.

A little back-of-the-envelope math suggests that this means those new elementary teachers who find jobs might command a princely average of $33,000 a year to start.

National Council on Teacher Quality efforts

Others have also attempted to assess quality indicators for Minnesota's teacher prep programs. In 2011, the National Council on Teacher Quality, a 15-year-old nonprofit that routinely raises hackles in the teacher prep community by using alternate data sets to produce report cards, asked MnSCU and the University of Minnesota system programs for materials such as course syllabi, which are among the materials the Board of Teaching uses to evaluate candidates for teaching licenses.

Arguing among other things that the materials constituted faculty intellectual property, the public programs refused to provide the information. With the exception of St. Cloud State University, MnSCU held out longer than the U of M schools.

In the fall of 2012, the national group sued in Ramsey County District Court and won. MnSCU appealed and lost. The resulting ratings were ultimately published in US News and World Report in 2013.

Most recently, the organization launched Path to Teach, a searchable database that uses the same information plus tuition rates and other indicators to produce letter grades for 1,100 programs.

A U of M administrator called the council’s first report “grossly incomplete” — which probably still sums up education colleges’ attitudes toward the outside evaluation effort.

MPS reports back to training programs

The National Council on Teacher Quality is not the only entity beginning to trace its own data back to teachers’ training programs. For instance, Minneapolis Public Schools has begun delivering reports to teacher training programs on how well prepared their graduates are during their first three years in the classroom.

The district graphs each program’s grads’ outcomes from student surveys, student “value-added” academic scores and observations performed as part of its teacher evaluation system.

Minneapolis made the data available to MinnPost for the nine programs where it has compiled information on 10 or more new teachers. So far there isn’t enough data to make even crude generalizations about individual training programs’ effectiveness, but with the district hiring several hundred new teachers a year, that will change soon.

And the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation is halfway into a decade-long, $40 million effort to help 14 teacher prep programs in Minnesota and the Dakotas use data to identify and build on strengths. Participating institutions have built a “Common Metrics” platform but phased out an effort to collect “value added” measurements on program graduates.

(Full disclosure: The Bush Foundation supports MinnPost’s education coverage, but plays no role in planning or generating news stories.)

State and federal efforts

Finally, there are the ongoing state and federal efforts to compel further disclosure. The U.S. rules expected in December would go into effect July 1, 2016, and could determine eligibility for federal grants for teacher candidates who plan to work in high-needs schools.

Minnesota’s new law requires the Board of Teaching and the state Board of School Administrators to publish graduation rates, the average length of time it takes a student to graduate, licensure rates and the rates at which grads are hired to teach in their licensure fields in classrooms by June 1.

It can be done, says Sandi Jacobs, senior vice president for state and district policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality. Maryland issues a report every other year that tracks graduates into the work force, for example. Delaware is set to release program report cards, she adds, and Tennessee and Ohio also are making increasing amounts of data available. And some programs publicize their results.

But big gaps remain. There is no national data, Jacobs says, showing where candidates of color leave the pipeline. And there’s a paucity of information about promising teacher training strategies.

“I think teacher preparation programs haven’t really bought into the notion that there is data that can measure how they are doing,” says Jacobs. “If we don’t have good data about who’s going in and who’s coming out, we don’t know if we are targeting our strategies to the roots of the problem.”