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Are future teachers getting too many easy A’s?

BY   November 12, 2014 at 11:00 AM EDT
A November 2014 report claims education majors may be getting higher grades than they deserve. Photo by Ilmicrofono Oggiono.

A new report claims education majors may be getting higher grades than they deserve. Photo by Ilmicrofono Oggiono.

The Internet is teeming with advice for first-year teachers on how to navigate the challenges they’ll face in the classroom. Establish boundaries. Get to know your students outside the classroom. Challenge the most advanced students without leaving those who struggle behind.

But how to do all of that and more shouldn’t be a mystery for new teachers to solve on their own, according to Kate Walsh, director of the National Council for Teacher Quality. A report out today from the group called “Easy A’s” argues new teachers find themselves floundering because many teacher prep programs aren’t challenging enough.

“It’s the easiest major to get into on a college campus and we’ve just shown it’s the easiest to complete,” Walsh said in an interview with the NewsHour. “But it’s the hardest job there is.”

Walsh’s claims are based on her group’s review of college graduation programs from more than 500 colleges and universities. On average, students in education departments on those campuses were 50 percent more likely to graduate with honors than students in other majors.

Authors of the report also reviewed education class syllabi from 33 campuses and found two-thirds of assignments focused more on students’ reflections, opinions or personal experiences. A much higher portion of assignments compared to classes in other departments. That difference, according to the report, makes it more difficult for education instructors to give objective and constructive feedback and give uniform grades based on the specific skills and knowledge students are supposed to be developing.

The need for more rigorous coursework and to ensure graduates are adequately prepared to teach on day one are well known to teacher preparation programs, according to Sharon Robinson, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

But, in an interview with the NewsHour, Robinson said NCTQ’s method of document review was an unreliable way to judge programs’ quality.

“This is a significant issue and one the professional community takes seriously,” Robinson said. “But they are not consulting the community, they’re consulting easily available documents like course syllabi.”

Robinson said the NCTQ report comes as more than 500 teacher preparation programs and six states have adopted a pre-service assessment called edTPA to qualify candidates for teaching degrees or licenses. For edTPA candidates submit teaching materials portfolio, work of their students and video of the candidate teaching.

In states that use the system for licensing purposes pass rates are reported to the federal government. That gives the test high stakes for future teachers and the institutions that train them.

“It puts the programs on high alert that they have to change to do what they need to do to get candidates ready,” Robinson said. “It helps institutions learn and reflect on ways to improve programs and helps candidates become users of assessments to inform their own learning.”

Walsh of NCTQ agreed a widely accepted assessment for future educators was a step in the right direction for the teaching profession, “but it’s not going to be able to satisfy everything we need to be able to know about what the candidates will need to do as a teacher.”

Getting schools to examine how challenging their teaching classes are is an easy fix, Walsh said.

“Any dean in any school of education or any institution anywhere could sit down with faculty and say ‘I want to look at quality of assignments you’re giving,’” she said, “and asking of institutions’ professors that they can compare one person’s work to another’s.”

How to improve teacher preparation programs will only get more attention in coming months. The Department of Education is expected to release a proposal for rating teacher preparation sometime this fall.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.