The Quality of Teacher Training is Not…

Picture this: You are heading to the doctor’s office for your annual physical. As you approach her office, your doctor calls out the window, “You don’t need to come in. Just walk back and forth a few times while I watch. That should be sufficient.”

Crazy, right? You wouldn’t trust that diagnosis and might find yourself a new doctor.

That analogy is a pretty fair description of the survey and analysis released by the National Council on Teacher Quality, “Teacher Prep Review,” last week. The NCTQ report covers 608 schools and colleges of education, about half of the American programs, awards stars, issues warnings, and generally lambastes the field.

But, like your doctor looking out the window and making a diagnosis, NCTQ did not visit campuses or sit in on classes. The authors read course catalogues and syllabi and from that very limited view drew conclusions. Flawed, right?

Now go back to your doctor. Suppose she sees that you are walking with a pronounced limp and hears your rasping cough. She can be pretty confident about concluding that you are not in good health. She might not know exactly what is wrong with you, but she knows you have health problems.

That’s the weird thing about the NCTQ study: it’s a deeply flawed report that is fundamentally correct. Teacher education is just not very good, which is what the report says, even as it gets a lot of important details wrong. For example, it mislabels a lot of specific college and university programs.

Of the 608 institutions studied, only four received the top rating, four stars. Roughly 160 programs received zero stars, and another 301 just one star. Of the 608 programs, only 100 received three or more stars. Pretty grim.{{1}}

Why no campus and classroom visits for NCTQ? The answer can be found in a footnote on page 78: only 1% of institutions agreed to participate. When the study was originally announced, I was in the room when the leader of one very prestigious school of education explained that her institution would not be participating because she–and most leaders–believed that the study would be biased and unfair. NCTQ’s leader, Kate Walsh, had a long history, she said, of being anti-schools of education, and she and her peers believed that Walsh was beginning from her conclusions and would be working backward to find evidence to support them.

Walsh strongly defends the study and its methods, citing a dozen pilot studies prior to beginning the survey work and the thoroughness of their analysis and review. But her own views are both strong and well-known. Not one to mince words, she said to me last year that she could not stand Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford’s teacher education program because “she’s an out-and-out liar. She gets up on stage and tells lie after lie.” (Stanford’s highly regarded programs received 1 ½ stars and 2 ½ stars, on a scale of 0-4.) {{2}}

For more, listen to Jane Williams’ interview with Kate Walsh (.mp3). Walsh tells Williams that teacher education is ‘wholesale mediocrity.’ She says that she began her research with what she calls a common assumption–teacher education was a problem–but says she conducted the study without bias. And Williams, a real pro, pushes Walsh hard on her support for Teach for America.

How can a shallow study get the big picture right? For one thing, the admissions policies are public record: only 25% of schools of education require that candidates come from the top half of their academic class. The other 75% apparently can accept anyone. (In Finland, all prospective teachers must be in the top third!)

The NCTQ study asserts that three-quarters of schools of education do not instruct prospective teachers about effective ways of teaching reading, certainly the essential foundational skill. From reading syllabi and course catalogues and not finding references to established research findings, NCTQ’s President Walsh asserts that instruction is “loosey-goosey,” with professors urging their students to “find their own ways” of teaching reading, instead of making sure they understand the importance of phonemic awareness, phonics and comprehension.

I have only anecdotal evidence in this particular area, but my experience supports Walsh.

Why does this matter? Well, our teacher training institutions graduate about 200,000 teachers every year. Those who get jobs end up teaching about 1.5 million kids in their first year. If the rookies are not well prepared, then those children are the losers. And since first year teachers are often given the worst assignments–struggling kids, perhaps children living in disadvantaged circumstances–that’s a double whammy.

In a conference call with reporters the day the report was released, Walsh said that most schools of education look down on the idea of ‘training’ for teachers. Many professors believe that ‘training creates automatons,’ she said. That makes no sense, she said, because, if teaching is a true profession like medicine and law, then teachers require training, just as doctors and lawyers do. As far as I can see, the report does not provide evidence for that assertion, so that may be just Walsh’s opinion.

Walsh believes in a market solution. People thinking about teaching will read this report and choose institutions that earned three or more stars, she said. This pool of educated consumers will force the zero-star and one-star places to shape up. Apparently she’s assuming that her study will be revised and updated every year, much like the US News & World Report rankings of colleges. And perhaps she believes that the 99% of schools of education that boycotted this time around will be shamed into participating.

I don’t think the market will solve the problem, and I don’t expect schools of education to overcome their aversion to Walsh.

It might help if schools of education were forced by their universities to raise their admission standards. Then matters would have to improve, because ed schools would have to sell themselves. Better qualified candidates would expect more from their professors.

If more of education’s heroic leaders like Larry Rosenstock of High Tech High decide to train teachers, the system will have to improve because it will have real competition.

But in addition to raising the bar for prospective teachers, we need to make it easier to be a teacher. Right now systems throw rookies into the deep end of the pool, telling them to ‘sink or swim.’ That has never made any sense, and it makes even less sense now in a time of widespread teacher bashing. Programs that provide one-year teaching internships make sense. School districts that arrange for rookies to spend their first year watching and learning make sense. Schools that make time for teachers to watch each other teach are doing the right thing. Changing how schools operate will keep good people in the system longer, and that should be our goal.

Here’s my bumper sticker: “Harder to become, easier to be”


[[1]]1. Arthur Levine, the former President of Teachers College, Columbia, did his own study in 2006 and concluded that 10% of programs were strong, 20% were poor, and the rest–70%–mediocre. That’s slightly more optimistic than the NCTQ study. Dr. Levine, however, visited campuses and classes.[[1]]
[[2]]2. That debate continues. Here’s one link. [[2]]

23 thoughts on “The Quality of Teacher Training is Not…

  1. When will we learn that Finland has a focus on classroom instruction based on a deep understanding of learning and teaching. New teachers are taught by master teachers not by individuals who have little or no experience with children.

    In a similar manner, I studied school administration but none of the professors had run a successful school.


    • Virtually all of the Teacher Educators I’ve worked with have had experience as classroom teachers. All of the courses that I took in school administration were from experienced administrators who had formal training and they had all been classroom teachers, too. The ads for jobs Teacher Ed and Ed Admin typically indicate that formal training and experience are requirements as well.

      On the other hand, it’s no longer a requirement or even an expectation in many locations that district Superintendents, the Secretary of Education and policy makers have any training or experience in education whatsoever.


  2. And the 5 week teacher training model of Teach for America, which is represented on the NCTQ Advisory Board, is just fine? And the Match grad school, also represented on the NCTQ Advisory Board, which trains teachers in ONE pedagogical approach, that of the military style drill sergeant, as implemented at charters like Match, KIPP (also represented on the NCTQ board) and other “no excuses” charters, is just fine? Funny I could find no indication that Match or any five week TFA training Institutes were evaluated by NCTQ.


    • Could find no evidence that Relay grad school, which also trains teachers to be military style sergeants for KIPP et al., was evaluated by NCTQ either. However, the school Relay originated at, Hunter College, was one of the few schools with high ratings for virtually all of its programs.


  3. As a neophyte teacher, at 8 am I would sit in on my department chairman’s
    history class; at 10 am he would sit in on my attempt to teach the same material. In the follow up conference, we would discuss the highs, lows and ways to improve. Nearly 60 years later I can still hear his voice, “Charley, define your terms!” How fortunate I was to have a highly qualified teacher as mentor throughout my first year in the classroom. I know of no better substitute,


  4. Many decades ago, well before he became President of Teachers College, Larry Cremin sat with the History Department at Columbia for a commencement, probably in the early ’60’s. The process is that Deans introduce their graduates, who stand, and the President invests them all at once.

    That year, the Dean of the School of Library Science introduced his M.L.S students, who stood, got their blessing, and then sat. Then the Dean mentioned that, for the first time, the School of Library Science had a graduate who had met all the requirements of a Doctorate in Library Science, introduced him, and he was then also blessed. At that point, in a not too quiet whisper, one of Cremin’s peers in History was heard to say, “Hey, they’ve finally got one worse than yours!”

    So much for ed schools.


  5. John,

    Very much appreciate your insights on this very important topic.

    There was one part of your blog that was perhaps the most eye-catching.


    “Not one to mince words, she [Kate Walsh] said to me last year that she could not stand Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford’s teacher education program because ‘she’s an out-and-out liar. She gets up on stage and tells lie after lie.'”

    You cannot and should not report this and then not dig deeper and report IF Darling-Hammond lied. If she did, Walsh is justified calling it for what it was: a lie. If you just report Walsh’s quote without giving context, you marginalize her as a bomb-thrower, which is what happened here. On the other hand, if Darling-Hammond didn’t lie, she didn’t deserve Walsh’s accusation.

    Please tell us which it is so we have the facts. Thank you.


    • Really, John. How could you report that Walsh said, Darling-Hammond “gets up on stage and tells lie after lie” without providing several examples of this? Presentations would probably be on tape and could be verified. If Walsh would not give specific examples, then it should not have been reported. And if Walsh herself fabricated, then Darling-Hammond could have a case for defamation or slander.


    • Please do not construe my reporting of Kate Walsh’s ad hominem attack on Linda Darling-Hamnond as anything but an example of Walsh’s shoot first style. I have known Linda DH for a long time and cannot recall her playing fast and loose with the truth at any time. At the time I asked Walsh for examples. If she provided any, I don’t recall them. Perhaps she will now?


  6. You do realize that Walsh talks out of both sides of her mouth, right? That she also promotes “correspondence course” type teacher “certification via ABCTE? That the advertisement on its website is “become a certified teacher now for less than the cost of one college class”?

    You do realize that Walsh rated programs that only exist on paper as excellent programs without bothering to know if such were actual programs?

    You do realize that teacher training programs do not trust Walsh and NCTQ because of the clearly non-traditional, pro-privatization stance Walsh and her NCTQ take?

    You do realize that your call for more rigor in teacher prep should also include higher salaries? Imagine the quality of physician you would get if physicians peaked at five-figure salaries.


    • OMG. I was looking at the ABCTE website. That really is a correspondence course! The only resources they mention using to prepare people to become teachers are study plans, workbooks, online resources and practice tests. I see absolutely nothing about any real live teachers for their “courses”. In fact, they indicate that advisors are available, but considering their advisors “cannot offer subject tutoring, nor answer specific questions about concepts or standards covered by the exams,” this suggests to me that those advisors are specifically not allowed to do any teaching.

      I’m a veteran classroom teacher who taught in brick and mortar Teacher Ed programs for decades. (OK, John and others, go ahead and hate me. After 20 years if enmity towards Teacher Ed, I’m used to it.) Due to health reasons, I’ve been teaching exclusively online for the past five years. (I know, you double hate me.) But I am just as committed to my students online as in brick and mortar classes and I cannot imagine any of my them being expected to learn how to become a teacher without having a teacher themselves to guide them through their training.

      And ABCTE is the model that is preferred over traditional teacher education? It looks like self-guided test prep!

      And BTW, While NCQT places a lot of emphasis on gatekeeping and raising the bar, ABCTE requires only a BA. They list no GPA or GRE requirements.


  7. As many have noted, NCTQ is not unbiased in its work. If we must cite this report, then let’s put “study,” “research,” and any other terms used to connote rigorous inquiry in quotation marks, as in NCTQ “study” asserts….


  8. “It might help if schools of education were forced by their universities to raise their admission standards….”

    I have heard this idea that if admission standards were raised, then teacher education would improve, and it puzzles me. Currently, schools of education are not turning away highly qualified candidates so they can make room for the dregs. They are pretty much taking all comers – high and low achievers (at least this was true in my alma mater – a school I greatly respected regardless.) Raising the admissions standards would simply reduce the number of students accepted. That is fine as long as these numbers are enough to staff the abundance of schools across the country. My guess is that raising the standard for admission to a level of Finish requirements would simply result in a shortage of teachers (not really a problem if you see TFA as the future of the education profession.)

    Raising the standards for admission into an academic program does not result in attracting better candidates into the program if the profession they are being prepared for does not improve in regards to prestige, autonomy, or salary. Again I hear the mantra of “raise standards” as being the solution, without the willingness to consider the real reasons institutions are substandard.

    Yes, there certainly is a serious issue with the quality of education colleges and the quality of education candidates. Raising standards alone will certainly send a signal of what is wanted in an educator, but it most likely will result in simply reducing incoming class sizes of education majors – the numbers of incoming program candidates decreasing from perhaps 400 to 40. Many of those high level humanitarian candidates will most likely switch majors as the economic reality of devoting one’s life to education becomes more apparent.


  9. I’m just wondering if those “year-long internships” are paid internships. I know so many bright, creative, thoughtful people who would make great teachers who cannot go to an education program because they are not in a financial position to work six months, unpaid (meaning, student teaching). The *one* person I knew who could do that moved his (working) wife and their infant daughter in with his in-laws so that they could afford for him to do the student teaching portion. If you want a wider field of intelligent, creative, caring people to be teachers, don’t limit teacher education programs to people who are supported by parents or spouses, or who are somehow independently wealthy.


    • Great point! Not only are student teachers not typically paid, but in some states, being paid in such placements is not permitted by law. I had this problem when I wanted to pursue certification in my state. At the time, I had long been a private school teacher with my own classroom and, while my university was willing to mentor me, it was against state law for student teachers to earn an income in their their student teaching placements. So, I would have had to leave my classroom so that I could go to another school and teach in someone else’s class for no pay. Being single, and making a low income to start with, I would not have been able to survive. Plus, the thought of giving up my beloved job, classroom and students was intolerable to me.

      My state has since changed that law, so that Teach for America (TFA) “teachers” could get paid, so I imagine it’s the same in other states where TFA goes. However, getting paid tends to be an arrangement made with school districts that’s specific to alternative certification programs. I’ve worked in several traditional Teacher Ed programs and I know of none that assure student teachers of income generating placements. However, if students already have a job teaching at a school, often arrangements will be made for them to do their student teaching there.


  10. John,
    So…again the report says that teacher preparation programs are worthless. Hopefully those who know anything about education will find this report not only offensive but quite untrue as well. Perhaps the author(s) of the NCQT report should visit some colleges of education, request permission to sit in on some classes, study some of the syllabi thoroughly, read the books and texts that pre-service teachers must read, take the Praxis tests, and spend some time observing some student teachers. I believe they will be quite amazed at the quality, intelligence, integrity, personality, ethics, scholarship and dedication, etc. that our pre-service teachers possess. Also, observe the dedication, knowledge, and skill of the professors of education. I suggest that they take time – probably 4 – 6 years to get themselves a degree in education, student teach (and, yes, quit their current well paying jobs to do so for no pay as most of our student teachers do.) and then spend a few years teaching in a public school classroom. Then , let’s have coffee and tell me what you think Our next generation of children will be in the hands of excellent, caring, wonderful teachers. Teachers who will have spent many hours, written many papers, read many books, and interned for many hours before becoming teachers. Few occupations require the rigor that becoming a teacher requires.
    The NCTQ report, by the way, was funded by the Thomas B. Fordham institute which is a strong opponent of public schools, and an avid supporter of for-profit charter schools and voucher programs. Perhaps they should do THEIR homework before throwing stones at the most important profession of all. There would be NO other professions without teachers…..


  11. Read your comments. Here’s my take on teaching training. I question a couple of assumptions lots of folk make. One is that the smartest people make the best teachers. Thus it matters that education majors must score in the top third on standardized tests. I’m skeptical there’s much correlation.

    I also doubt that competition for top students will get the schools of education to improve. And what would make such a department better? Profs who had published more scholarly articles? More methods classes?

    Competition gets you better marketing. It doesn’t get you a better product. Take a look at the best-selling products that get low marks in Consumer Reports.

    I liked what I saw in NYC District 10, I believe it was. There, classroom teachers got a lot of mentoring by master teachers.
    Likewise, in Germany, with some EWA fellows, we saw new teachers get lots of mentoring by veterans, much more than the student teaching requirement here.

    My wife Toni supervised student teachers for an area college and was a school principal for many years. Plus, she was an assistant superintendent who oversaw professional development and curriculum. She was also a program officer for a year with the NSF. What I’ve heard her talk about mostly is how some people just don’t have what it takes to be a decent teacher. No matter how good the schooling or desire or supervision. But some fairly good teachers can improve.

    I do think reforming teaching training would do well to interview people with Toni’s kind of background and expertise. As a sometime fellow with Alex Molnar’s gang, now based at Colorado in Boulder, I haven’t been especially impressed with most of these professors of education. But in college, seminary and graduate schools, I had few professors I’d give high marks to. No matter the subject. Some of the best teaching I saw was in small seminars at Wabash College when I was on a Lilly Fellowship. Purdue engineering classes were huge and pretty dull. Of course, I’m not a math or science guy.

    I recall that some years ago, Linda Darling-Hammond’s research found that teachers who had the highest test scores and best grades didn’t stay more than a few years in the classroom. I always thought she was about the smartest and wisest academic that I heard at EWA conferences.

    Well, John, there’s my take on the latest debate in your field. Good luck.


  12. Among the many things the NCTQ paper (I disdain to even call it a report) ignores are the sincere and sometimes successful attempts many schools of education have made. I’ve been a critical friend of teacher ed for a long time, and I, too, have my preparation horror stories. But, I have also seen, first hand, the mixed messages and cross purposes that university administrations, regional accreditation agencies, and state licensure requirements have piled on more traditional teacher education programs. At the same time, many of the alternative programs have not been held to the same (or any) quality standards.

    Many of the charges being leveled at the teacher ed programs by NCTQ and others, are not even within their control. For example, most teacher prep programs do not have legal authority over specific classroom/teacher placements of their student teachers. In many, if not most places, that falls under the control of the district or school leadership. I personally know more than one school administrator who deliberately places student teachers with the weakest teachers in the building, not the best. Their rationale is that the student teacher, fresh from the education courses, might be able to help the struggling or incompetent teacher, or at least shore up the instruction for a little while.

    Frankly, I think we should all go back and take a closer look at the teacher ed report issued by the Blue Ribbon Panel on Clinical Preparation [of teachers]. Disclaimer: I was on that panel, but so were a wide cross section of all the constituencies it would actually take to improve teacher education (university provosts, teachers, parents, state licensure agencies, accreditation organizations, unions, state legislators, school boards, national policymakers, researchers, etc.) It had more substance to it, and most important, more solid recommendations for how to move forward.


  13. The Lie Katie Walsh tells about Linda Darling-Hamilton reminds me of the Mary McCarthy quote about Lillian Hellman, (used against MichellRhee.)
    every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.


  14. John,
    Thoughtful questions you raise, and the bumper sticker idea is right on the mark.

    For me, the fundamental problem in teacher ed is our national confusion on what we really want out of education and our top-down approach to reform.

    As long as we have politicians, the wealthy elite, and their hired guns constantly tinkering and micromanaging policy, funding, standards, and assessment, teacher preparation will continue to vaguely chase these powerful pressures. I believe these pressures are preventing rather than fostering excellence in teacher education.

    The reforms in Finland that have resulted in high quality, locally created education by highly prepared, trusted, professional teachers were brought about by just the opposite of what is happening in our country.

    Pasi Sahlberg explains that their success is a result of returning trust and local control to schools, the creation of a simple, clear set of national goals for education and focusing on supporting teachers, students, and communities in this sacred work. Their policy is prevention, not repair. Their secret lies in trust and responsibility rather than control and accountability.

    Our current path is a setup for failure, blame, and ongoing tragic damage.

    Steve Cifka,
    33 year Veteran Public Teacher


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