EDUCATION reform debates, locally and nationally, have largely focused on raising the bar for students. Less effort has been placed on ensuring that quality teachers are in the classroom. The National Council on Teacher Quality hopes this will change.
The group has been working on a national study of all public (and some private) colleges of education to evaluate the effectiveness of teacher training programs. The study considers everything from admission standards to graduate surveys to determine which programs produce the best outcomes (quality teachers).
Although scheduled for release on June 18, Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the NCTQ, says some broad results are already apparent — and troubling.
“The state of teacher preparation is pretty broken across the country,” Jacobs said in an interview with The Oklahoman. One common problem is that colleges set the entrance bar very low for prospective teachers; many are “basically open enrollment programs.”
This isn't how it works in other countries that are outperforming the United States in education. Examples include Finland, Singapore and South Korea. There, applicants who aren't in the top 10 percent of their high school class often can't get into a college teacher-preparation program, Jacobs said. In the U.S., applicants often come from the bottom 50 percent of their high school class.
Critics typically blame this on low teacher pay. While money matters, pay alone doesn't explain the difference. “What we see from those other countries is they do pay better,” Jacobs said. “They don't pay dramatically better.”
A top potential applicant's biggest problem with teacher pay is often that raises are tied to tenure, not job performance; it can take up to 20 years to get raises comparable to those that other professionals reap in far less time.
Furthermore, in South Korea admission standards were once lower for those teaching elementary schools and much higher for secondary teachers. When standards were raised for elementary teachers, Jacobs said, the quality of applicants to those programs also improved. “You make it competitive, you make it hard, and it attracts different people,” Jacobs said.
Even if admissions standards weren't an issue, many teaching programs also fail to adequately prepare future educators to be effective in the classroom. The NCTQ's past studies have found that clear, research-based approaches generate the best results when teaching children to read. Yet just 15 percent of education colleges were instructing prospective teachers in those methods.
Instead, new teachers are often sent to the classroom and expected to figure things out as they go along, including everything from classroom discipline to effective teaching strategies. That's problematic for children in those classrooms.
When the NCTQ's report is released, lawmakers should carefully review its findings on Oklahoma programs. Because state authorization is required for any teacher-preparation program, legislators can mandate any necessary changes. However, Jacobs warns that proposed improvements may be resisted by higher education officials for one simple reason: “In most universities, the Ed School is a cash cow.” Raising admission standards could reduce student volume and cash flow in those programs.
But it could also ensure that higher-quality applicants enter those schools and then get better training before entering classrooms and affecting children across Oklahoma. That's a worthwhile trade-off.