Cepeda: U.S. teacher training programs need to hit the books

By Esther Cepeda, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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Maybe someday, I'll go back to school and re-experience teacher training decades after the current movement to bring rigor to such programs has finally taken hold in higher education. Perhaps then I could marvel at changes in the currently laughable system of identifying and preparing K-12 educators compared to 2003, when I started working toward my teaching certification and master's in education.

I regularly hear from teachers who are frustrated by the stupefying nature of their continuing professional-development classes or the poor training many new teachers get. Instead, here are the words of a fairly recent graduate who wrote The Wall Street Journal in response to a news story about the National Council on Teacher Quality's first nationwide review of teacher preparation programs: "I'm at the tail end of my fourth year of teaching high school and have come to realize that many of the classes that I sat through, and paid exorbitant amounts of money for, have had very little application in the classroom," wrote Sonia Gerig of Oakdale, N.Y.

"There were no classes on state and federal standards for content, there were no classes on how to manage a classroom with behavior issues or classes on how to design effective lessons, no classes on how to modify assignments to satisfy the accommodations on a student's Individualized Education Plan without sacrificing quality of the assignment."

I took my last graduate-level education course in 2009 and the quality of both the curriculum and instruction — not to mention the caliber of my classmates, most of whom were working educators — was so poor I wrote a formal complaint. It was an act of futility.

'Industry of mediocrity'

Here are the most alarming tidbits from NCTQ's report. According to its survey of 2,420 teacher preparation programs at the 1,130 institutions that prepare 99 percent of the nation's traditionally trained new teachers, it is far too easy to get into a teacher preparation program. "Just over a quarter of programs restrict admissions to students in the top half of their class, compared with the highest-performing countries, which limit entry to the top third," the study notes.

And three out of four elementary teacher preparation programs aren't even teaching the methods of reading instruction that could substantially lower the number of children who never become proficient readers. "Instead," the report says, "the teacher candidate is all too often told to develop his or her 'own unique approach' to teaching reading." I can attest to the veracity of each of these claims and have, in previous columns, tackled these issues and the absurdities of the multibillion-dollar teacher education industrial complex, which is described by NCTQ as an "industry of mediocrity."

The real story here is not simply that teacher preparation programs stink — education experts have described them as lackluster and in need of work for years — but that we can finally say this for a fact. Despite the open revolt from education program deans across the country who protested NCTQ's efforts and denounced their rating methodology as flawed, now that the problems have been identified and quantified, energy can be put to fixing them.

NCTQ's 2010 evaluation of Illinois' teacher prep programs found that in addition to several other poor practices, the state's test for prospective teachers was too easy to pass, subsequently allowing colleges to churn out countless unprepared teachers. The findings drove real policy changes. In this most recent assessment, Illinois was found to have made significant progress just by raising the bar in state testing requirements for undergraduate admissions. If this can happen in the Land of Lincoln's hotbed of entrenched education interests, there's hope for every state.