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.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.