The U.S. spends more than $7 billion a year preparing classroom teachers, but teachers are not coming out of the nation's colleges of education ready, according to a study released Tuesday by U.S.News & World Report and the National Council on Teacher Quality.
The study says most schools of education are in disarray.
"Right now, much of higher ed believes that it's not their job to have a teacher be ready for the classroom on Day 1," says Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.
Her organization's study of more than 1,100 colleges of education found that 7 out of 10 programs did not adequately teach candidates how to teach reading. Nine out of 10 did a poor job preparing them to teach basic subjects like English, math, science or history. Training in classroom management and the use of student data was lacking. The damage to K-12 education, says Walsh, is enormous, and she is on a mission to expose what she calls "widespread malpractice" in the field of teacher education.
"School districts are spending billions of dollars to make up for what teacher training programs are not doing," Walsh says.
Some colleges of education are so bad, the study attached a "consumer alert" to their names with this warning: "In our view, caution is advised as prospective teacher candidates are unlikely to gain much, if any, teacher training of value in return for their investment."
On that list of the nation's 163 so-called worst teacher training programs is East Tennessee State University.
"May I look at the list? I'm floored. I'm actually floored," said the dean of the school of education there, Hal Knight, while looking at a paper copy of the list for the first time.
After all, says Knight, nobody has ever complained about East Tennessee's graduates. "Our employer surveys are saying we're doing a good job. Our teachers are finding jobs, and the one measure of outcomes that we've had, which is the Tennessee report card, we've done pretty well," Knight says.
That report card, he says, shows that East Tennessee State is producing teachers who are raising student achievement, which is why Leslie Pool and Brian Beeh, both candidates to become reading teachers, say their program can't possibly be among the worst in the nation.
"I feel prepared and I feel comfortable walking into a classroom and being able to teach children," says Pool.
"I am kind of shocked that we're listed at the bottom because I feel I'm getting a good education," Beeh says.
The National Council on Teacher Quality zeroed in on two major areas: how education schools prepared students for the classroom and whether that preparation had anything to do with the growing demand on teachers to show they're actually raising students' performance. Walsh says consumers — namely school districts and people going into teaching — need to know.
"If consumers know who's doing a great job, they're going to gravitate towards those programs; they're going to stay away from those that are weak. Those weak ones will have a choice: They either work to get a lot better or they go out of business for lack of clientele," she says. "That's our primary goal — to just give consumers a much better idea of where to go."
Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College-Columbia University, says that goal is fine but urges caution. "Before we close down failing programs, we ought to have really strong data about which are failing and which ones aren't," Levine says.
The study does not offer strong data, he says. Levine has spent most of his career trying to reform schools of education. He gives the study an incomplete for relying too heavily on course descriptions rather than actually observing how faculty prepare students for the real world.
The bottom line, Levine says, is that "the measure of the success of any teacher education program is how well the graduates are doing with the children in their classes. That's the only thing that matters — not the process by which we prepared those teachers."
Efforts to measure that though are in their infancy. Still, the study, with all its limitations, will have an impact, he says. The question is: How will institutions respond?
"Actually, we don't expect them to respond at all," Walsh says. "I can point to a hill graveyard of failed efforts to try to get teacher education to change. What's different about what we're doing is that if they don't change, they're going to feel it in the pocketbook."
The concern, says Levine, is that this could backfire and further polarize the debate over the future of teacher education, whether it can be repaired or whether it's so broken it needs to be replaced.