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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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.