Sunday, June 08, 2008

Research questions quality of teachers' training

Sunday, May 25, 2008
Scott Stephens and Edith Starzyk
Plain Dealer Reporters

In "Putting Teachers to the Test," an occasional series, The Plain Dealer is taking a yearlong look at issues involving teachers and the quality of instruction. Today and Monday, we examine teacher-preparation programs. Future stories will explore what constitutes good teaching and bad teaching and how the profession is changing.

Imagine that commercial airline pilots were trained in schools where almost everyone who applied was admitted.

Imagine that their instructors had not been in a cockpit for decades and rarely spoke with active pilots about new equipment or cutting-edge techniques.

And imagine that those mythical training schools operated within an accreditation system that failed to ensure quality and rarely disciplined failure.

Fasten your seat belt.

That imaginary scenario is all too close to the way critics describe the training that America's teachers receive -- on average -- at the nation's 1,200 college- and university- based teacher education pro- grams.

A growing body of research argues that education schools -- despite some exemplary exceptions -- produce inadequately prepared teachers.

The issue is crucial because educators agree that having a quality teacher in the classroom is the single most important factor in a child's education.

In fact, research shows that students who have three ineffective teachers in a row will score as much as 50 percentage points lower on standardized tests than students who have three effective teachers in a row, said Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond.

"That's the difference between being ready to go to an Ivy League college and not finishing high school," said Darling-Hammond, one of the nation's top experts on teacher training.

So what are the odds of getting three bad teachers in a row?

Maybe not as slim as you think.

In a four-year study released 20 months ago, Arthur Levine, former dean of Teachers College at Columbia University, found that students who intend to major in education, as a whole, have lower scores on college entrance exams than other college-bound students.

And because universities often rely on education schools as "cash cows," low admissions standards are too often allowed because they help boost enrollments and revenues, he found. Some schools accept 100 percent of their applicants.

Education professors, often as a result of low publication records and lightly regarded research, receive tenure less frequently and are paid less than colleagues in other fields.

Far too often, those faculties and the curricula they teach are disconnected from real schools and real practitioners. The hours required for student teaching can vary anywhere from 300 hours to 30 hours, the study found.

Worse yet, teacher preparation programs are awash in a system of weak quality control, according to Levine's research. Programs are judged only by their students' success on certification exams, not on whether the teachers they produce help children learn.

Accreditation is rarely pulled. Despite myriad shortcomings, none of the 70 institutions involved in Levine's study lost accreditation.

"Teacher education is the Dodge City of the education world," Levine says. "It is unruly and chaotic."

Raising quantity, quality simultaneously

It's also a vital cog in the education system that is being asked - for the first time in the nation's history - to educate all children at the highest achievement levels ever.

High attrition rates of new teachers, the retirement of baby boomers and increases in student numbers because of immigration and other factors have conspired to soon create an estimated 200,000 teacher vacancies a year.

Recruiting and training replacements will cost the nation $4.9 billion annually. In Ohio alone, that annual cost is estimated at $206 million.

In business, you can increase quality by decreasing quantity. Or you can increase quantity if you sacrifice quality. Teacher education programs, which train more than 90 percent of the nation's 3 million teachers, are being asked to do both.

Their success is tested every day in areas like "classroom management," the education term for keeping students engaged and out of trouble.

"They get training in that at the university, but there's nothing like being in the classroom," said Kathy Sauchak, principal at William Cullen Bryant School in Cleveland's Old Brooklyn neighborhood. "The first day you're on your own, you're shaking in your boots."

What does it mean to be a teacher?

Defenders of education schools say the problem lies with a failure to define what it means to be a teacher. If you think that sounds easy, think again.

A 2002 Abell Foundation study, embraced by then-U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Page, advanced the idea that teaching is a craft and that teachers should be hired based on what they know about the subject they teach. College education courses, they said, should be optional.

Those who saw teaching as a profession hit back, arguing that rigorous preparation and pre-career course work were essential to classroom success. The trade newspaper Education Week reported that charges flew back and forth "like chairs on the 'Jerry Springer Show.' "

"In some cases, I think teacher education programs have taken a bum rap," said State Superintendent Susan Tave Zelman. "We cannot improve these programs until we are clear what we want the profession to look like in the 21st century, and we haven't done that."

But some suggest we're on our way. Stanford's Darling-Hammond said pressure for reform has spurred states and accrediting bodies to strengthen standards since Levine's study.

For example, close to 40 states - including Ohio - now require high school teachers to have a college major in the field they teach. Standards are generally very high in the Midwest and New England, Darling-Hammond said.

But how do universities know whether the teachers they produce are effective or ineffective? How do they know whether they are helping children learn?

The short answer: They generally don't.

Cleveland Heights-University Heights Superintendent Deborah Delisle was shocked when she received a survey from Ohio University asking how the teachers it graduated were performing.

"It was the first time here in seven years anyone asked that," she said.

Teachers' impact on students' success

Tom Lasley has been doing a lot of asking. Lasley, dean of the University of Dayton's School of Education and Allied Professions, is co-chairman of the Ohio Partnership for Accountability. The group, which includes all of the state's college schools of education, is studying how the preparation of new teachers affects the performance of their students.

The project, the first of its kind in the nation, will issue its initial report this September. It will track the performance of recent education school graduates by looking at the English and math scores of the children they teach.

The method: A groundbreaking formula called "value-added," a process that measures the value a teacher adds to a student's experience in the classroom.

The goal: Replicate what works, fix what doesn't.

"The good news for Ohioans and others is that there is very rapid progress in trying to use data to drive changes in teacher-preparation programs," Lasley said.

The bad news for Ohio is that teachers are an export crop. The state's teacher-preparation programs produce more teachers than there are jobs in this state.

Take Cassandra Sears, a Baldwin-Wallace College graduate who did her student teaching this spring at William Cullen Bryant School.

Last month, Sears was one of hundreds of local college students who lined up at the International Exposition Center for job interviews. Two Florida school districts gave her conditional offers on the spot.

She'll be teaching math this fall at a junior high school in the Clay County district outside Jacksonville, Fla.

Like others who have chosen to go south, she cited enticements like the weather and nearby beaches. But she also likes the fact that schools in that area are gaining 200 students a year and hiring lots of teachers - many of them from Ohio.

"It's exciting to come in with all the other new teachers - the new blood - and share that experience," she said.

Sears had applied to about a dozen Ohio districts but interviewed with only one.

"It's so competitive in Ohio - one opening gets 100 to 200 applicants," she lamented. "I have family here, but other than that, nothing's keeping me here."

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