Colorado

New report ranks Colorado teacher training programs poorly

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Distribution of ratings across programs nationally. Source: National Council on Teacher Quality.

An already-controversial new report from the advocacy group the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) argues that the vast majority of college- and university-level teacher training programs — including most in Colorado — are insufficiently preparing new teachers for the classroom.

“They have become an industry of mediocrity, churning out first-year teachers with classroom management skills and content knowledge inadequate to thrive in classrooms with ever-increasing ethnic and socioeconomic student diversity,” the report states.

Of 1,200 elementary and secondary education training programs for which NCTQ awarded ratings on a four-star scale, no programs in Colorado were awarded more than two and a half stars.

The report ranked programs at 13 Colorado institutions, including 20 undergraduate and six graduate-level elementary and secondary education programs. Of those, only Colorado State University’s undergraduate secondary education program and the University of Colorado – Boulder’s undergraduate elementary education program were rated two and a half stars. The rest received ratings of two stars or below, “ratings that connote, at best, mediocrity,” the report states.

Eight of the state’s programs received no stars. “While these low-rated institutions certainly can produce good teachers, it is less by design than happenstance: a chance placement with a great mentor or assignment to a strong section of an otherwise weak course,” the report argues.

NCTQ’s effort to collect data on and then rate teacher training programs has been controversial from the start. Leaders of many educator training programs have raised concerns about the project’s methodology, arguing that the data that NCTQ collected cannot provide a complete picture of the training experience the schools offer.

Many education schools resisted supplying the data that NCTQ requested (which led to legal battles with some of the schools) and the amount and quality of data available varied from program to program. The University of Denver and the University of Northern Colorado both declined to provide NCTQ data; both schools were given ratings based on data the organization was able to obtain through independent channels.

While the report’s authors collected data on 16 different standards, they were able to base their ratings of all of the elementary and secondary programs included on just a few: selection criteria, content preparation and student teaching. Elementary education programs were also rated on early reading and elementary mathematics preparation. An average of 58 percent of the programs were able to be judged on all of the standards.

“We have created the largest database on teacher preparation ever assembled, with information from thousands of syllabi, textbooks, student teaching handbooks, student teacher observation instruments and other material,” the report says.

But Eugene Sheehan, dean of the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado, said that such a method judges only how well a school’s offerings adhere to a uniform and maybe questionable set of criteria rather than judging how well teaching methods work in practice.

“It’s like counting how many books you have in the library rather than counting the number of people who read them,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan also questioned some of the criteria that the NCTQ used to determine the quality of a program. For example, the report looks at whether a teacher training program draws its students from the top half of their classes academically.

“If you look at that criteria, only the top universities in the country would be training teachers and we’d be screening out many many minorities who would make great teachers,” he said.

Lorrie Shepard, dean of the School of Education and CU-Boulder, said that in addition to concerns about some of the criteria, some of the rules regarding whether a school’s program was counted as meeting NCTQ’s criteria muddle the picture. For example, raters used a single syllabus to judge whether CU-Boulder’s program met the requirements for early reading; had they looked at both required reading courses, Shepard said, raters would have seen that the program does meet the criteria.

“A pretty good and deep program could be denied points in their system,” Shepard said.

Colorado is in the midst of developing a system that will trace data about individual teachers from their training institutions to the schools where they teach and in turn linking them to their student’s outcome data. Deans at several Colorado education schools today said that the coming system will be a more useful tool for judging the effectiveness of teacher training and identifying areas for improvement. Several schools in Colorado, including the University of Northern Colorado and CU-Boulder, also internally track the trajectories of their students, including job placements and district evaluations of student teacher quality.

“Measuring the quality of teacher education is a critical job for the media and for watchdog groups,” said Gregory Anderson, dean of the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver. “But [NCTQ] isn’t doing that.”

The president of NCTQ, Kate Walsh, told reporters today that such criticisms amounted to making the perfect the enemy of the good. “We are looking 12 inches deep by looking at these documents, so our level of depth isn’t as anyone would ideally be looking,” she said. “But our 12-inch examination reveals a lot because there is so much dysfunction.”

In addition to publicizing the ratings, Walsh said that the data would soon be provided to school districts to allow them to screen candidates according to where they were trained. “With this data, we are setting in place market forces that will spur underachieving programs to recognize their shortcomings and adopt methods used by the high scorers,” the report states.

But American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten questioned whether that approach would lead to better practice in educator training programs.

“It’s disappointing that for something as important as strengthening teacher preparation programs, NCTQ chose to use the gimmick of a four-star rating system without using professionally accepted standards, visiting any of the institutions or talking with any of the graduates,” Weingarten said in a statement. “Best-of and worst-of lists always garner attention, so we understand why NCTQ would use that device. While its ‘do not enter’ consumer alerts will make the intended splash, it’s hard to see how it will help strengthen teacher preparation programs or elevate the teaching profession.”

Local funders of the project include the Anschutz Foundation and the Donnell-Kay Foundation, which also funds EdNews Colorado.

Read the full report on the council’s website, and ratings for Colorado programs are below (the triangular symbols denote zero stars and a “consumer alert”).

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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.