Study: Colorado teacher prep programs weak

stockfrustratedstudentA new report by the National Council on Teacher Quality zings Colorado’s teacher preparation programs for failing to ready graduates to teach reading and math.

The report, “Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers: Are Colorado’s Education School Graduates Ready to Teach Reading and Mathematics in Elementary Classrooms?” was released Monday. It found that while most programs in Colorado provide some exposure to the fundamentals of “the science of reading,” only six of the state’s 15 teacher preparation programs adequately prepare their students to teach reading, and only two cover the mathematics content that elementary teachers need.

“No preparation program in the state ensures that aspiring elementary teachers know the science of reading instruction and understand elementary mathematics content at a depth that is sufficient for instruction,” the authors conclude.

It calls on the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Department of Higher Education to establish more stringent standards for students entering teacher preparation programs, and to adopt wholly new assessments to test graduates’ competency in teaching reading and math.

Methodology questioned

The report also calls on education schools to beef up their reading and math coursework and to guide instructors to use stronger textbooks. And it urges university administrators to take the lead in getting education departments and math departments to coordinate and cooperate.

But questions about the report’s methodology leave some Colorado educators skeptical. The authors studied course syllabi and textbook selection, but never sat in on any classes or interviewed faculty or students, nor did they track how graduates actually fared in the real world.

“Is this helpful? No,” said Eugene Sheehan, dean of the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado, the state’s largest teacher preparation program – and one of its best, according to the NCTQ study.

“All this does is tell us whether or not the course syllabi meet their standards. It doesn’t really tell us anything about the quality of the teachers we’ve produced. Asking to see a syllabus is the same as asking about the number of books in our library. It doesn’t get at how many people check them out or actually read them. It’s the same with syllabi. While they may be generally related to teacher quality, we would prefer data collection on actual teacher performance in the classroom.”

In fact, Sheehan and several other deans of Colorado education schools recently co-wrote an op-ed piece for the Denver Post that lauded the effectiveness of the state’s teacher preparation programs and the reforms that have strengthened them over the past 10 years, as well as the caliber of students now enrolled in Colorado’s programs and the rigor of graduation requirements and licensure tests.

“It’s hard for me to figure out how NCTQ can figure out teacher preparation in Colorado without them ever having set foot on most of the campuses in the state,” Sheehan said. “Everything they look at is input-based. We do monitor the quality of the teachers we prepare, but we do it in different ways.”

In a letter to the Denver Area Superintendents’ Council dated Dec. 7, two University of Colorado education school deans echoed Sheehan’s criticisms of the study, and suggested that NCTQ may have an axe to grind. According to Lorrie Shepard, dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Lynn Rhodes, dean of the CU-Denver School of Education and Human Development,

“NCTQ is a self-appointed teacher-quality advocacy group.  Its founder, Kate Walsh, is an avowed critic of college- and university-based teacher preparation programs.  NCTQ has not been approved as an accrediting body by either the federal government or professional associations.

NCTQ has already issued reports on teacher preparation in several other states, including Indiana, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming, using a predictable template.  Although NCTQ claims to provide “comprehensive research,” their research methods and criteria are quite limited.  Rather than focusing on teacher candidate performance outcomes as is expected in most present-day accountability and accreditation models, NCTQ bases its critiques on three narrow aspects of program inputs and standardized tests as outcomes.”

No building blocks, no progress

Julie Greenberg, senior policy director for the NCTQ and co-author of the report, insists that the methods used are appropriate. “Our feeling is that we’re looking at the necessary conditions for teaching materials that teachers need to know,” she said. “If those building blocks aren’t in place, seeing what actually happens in a classroom won’t change the fact that they’re absent. The lack of these things can’t be compensated for.”

Specifically, what NCTQ analysts looked for, by combing through course syllabi and the assigned textbooks, was evidence that the five fundamentals of reading – phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension – were being taught. Likewise, they looked for math-related courses to cover four subject areas: numbers and operations, algebra, geometry and measurement, and data analysis and probability.

Using this criteria, a national study found that only 15 percent of schools adequately addressed all five fundamentals of reading, and only 13 percent did an adequate job on math. So compared to teacher preparation programs around the country, Colorado would seem to be doing better than most, but that’s hardly cause for pride.

The Colorado schools that drew highest praise for teacher preparation in reading: Colorado Christian College in Lakewood, Fort Lewis College in Durango,  Regis University in Denver, CU-Boulder, CU-Colorado Springs and Western State College in Gunnison. UNC did well on most of the fundamentals but researchers found no evidence of training in teaching fluency strategies.

Schools praised for their mathematics preparation were Mesa State College in Grand Junction and UNC.

Schools that drew particular criticism were Adams State College in Alamosa and Colorado College in Colorado Springs, which failed to meet even part of the standards for both reading and mathematics, under the NCTQ’s analysis criteria.

Joel Judd, chairman of the Adams State English department, said the Colorado Council of Deans of Education would be issuing a statement soon about the report.

Charlotte Mendoza, former chair of the Education Department at Colorado College, said Sunday that current Chairman Paul Kuebis had issued a memo recently letting faculty know this report would be coming out, that CC had declined to participate in the NCTQ study and had not been consulted about it.

State licensing tests weak

The report also faults every school in the state for relying on the Praxis II and PLACE exams, which serve as Colorado’s teacher licensing tests, and not developing their own.

“The unequivocal weaknesses of the Praxis II and PLACE content tests as assessments of the capacity to teach elementary school necessitates that Colorado’s preparation programs develop and use exit assessments that do so. No program has recognized this need and responded to it,” the report notes.

“If you ask about exit standards, they say they do have capstone programs or culminating activities,” Greenberg says. “But those aren’t the sort of exit assessments we’re talking about.” She said universities could find better assessments than Praxis II and PLACE if they would look. “But they think that’s the state’s responsibility.”

That’s exactly what Sheehan thinks. “They’ll have to take that argument up with the Colorado Department of Education. Those aren’t our tests, they’re the CDE-mandated tests.”

“When did the value of a bachelor’s degree fall off the table as an indicator of knowledge?” Sheehan asks. “If I graduate with a bachelor’s degree, I’ve already demonstrated content knowledge, over many semester’s worth of work and God knows how many tests.”

The report does praise five Colorado schools for being more selective than most, thereby allowing their teacher preparation programs to draw from a more selective pool of applicants. But these five – Colorado Christian College, Colorado College, Regis, CU-Boulder and University of Denver – account for just 20 percent of the elementary teachers produced by Colorado’s undergraduate education programs.

Less selective means lower quality students?

The remaining 10 schools are far less selective in admissions, meaning their teacher education programs may draw less capable students, the report notes. “Most of the nation’s teachers come from the bottom third of high school graduates going to college,” states the report. “In contrast countries whose students outperform ours consistently attract students form the top third of their high school classes.”

Sheehan disputes this. “There’s an assumption often promoted by NCTQ that teacher candidates are, on average, less academically qualified than other students. We just did a study on that very point, and our teacher candidates at UNC are the best undergraduates here. The myth that teacher candidates are the poorest performers on university campuses is just that – a myth.”

Sheehan also complains that there is no evidence that teachers graduating from the nation’s elite universities are better than teachers coming from less-selective state schools.

Greenberg says she hopes the report will invite schools –and individual professors – to re-examine what they’re doing. “We know from work we’ve done in other states that some of our recommendations on textbooks have led instructors to make changes in their courses. So even if a dean doesn’t adopt wholesale changes, it’s possible for a single instructor to say ‘I didn’t realize the book I’m using isn’t the best.’ So we’ve provided some food for thought. And we also hope that policy makers in Colorado will take a look at this, will realize where the state’s policies lie on the national continuum, and will have a better sense of what might be available to them.”

Summary of key findings of the “Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers” NCTQ report:

* Colorado’s colleges and universities are more selective than colleges and universities across the country, allowing some of its teacher preparation programs to benefit from a more selective pool of applicants.

* While most preparation programs in Colorado provide some exposure to effective reading instruction, they do not fully prepare candidates to teach the science of reading.

*Programs use a wide variety of reading textbooks, many of which do not address the science of reading.

* Only two Colorado preparation programs satisfactorily cover the mathematics content that elementary teachers need, and eight are seriously deficient. Algebra instruction, while stronger than the national average, is still inadequate.

* Colorado’s preparation programs vary widely in selected textbooks for mathematics content coursework.

*Most of Colorado’s Preparation programs have a dedicated elementary mathematics methods course.

* No preparation program in the state ensures that aspiring elementary teachers know the science of reading instruction and understand elementary mathematics concepts at a depth that is sufficient for instruction.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.