Most Colorado teacher prep programs don’t teach reading well, report says. University leaders don’t buy it.

About two-thirds of Colorado’s teacher preparation programs, including the state’s two largest, earned low grades for how they cover early reading instruction, according to a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality.

The report, which is controversial for its reliance on documents such as course syllabi and textbooks, claims to assess whether teacher prep programs adequately cover five key components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Nationwide, about half of traditional teacher prep programs received an A or a B in this year’s report, the third round of evaluations published on the topic since 2013. In Colorado, six of the 19 programs evaluated received an A or B this year, including Adams State University, Colorado State University-Pueblo, Colorado Christian University, Western State University, and both the undergraduate and graduate programs at University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.

While many higher education leaders discount the report as an unreliable gauge of whether teacher prep programs adequately train teachers on reading instruction, there’s no debate that far too many children struggle with reading. In Colorado, just over 41% of third-graders met or exceeded grade-level standards on the state’s 2019 literacy test.

The state’s chronically low proficiency rates are part of what prompted state officials in late 2018 to start more rigorously evaluating how teacher prep programs cover reading instruction. The University of Northern Colorado — the state’s largest prep program — was the first to undergo the additional scrutiny as part of its state reauthorization process, and ultimately received a scathing review from state reading experts.

In the new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, the University of Northern Colorado received a C for both its undergraduate and graduate programs’ coverage of reading instruction. Metro State University of Denver, the state’s second-largest teacher preparation program, received a D for both its undergraduate and graduate program, and an F for its alternative teacher licensure program.

Liz Hinde, dean of Metro State’s school of education, wrote in an email message, “While we recognize the right of external agencies to review our programs and welcome anyone to visit our website and gather whatever information they would like from it, we believe that the State of Colorado is the most legitimate judge” of the university’s teacher prep program.

Metro is currently undergoing its state reauthorization with extra reading instruction scrutiny. State officials will conduct a site visit February and likely issue a final report this spring or summer. Teacher preparation programs usually go through reauthorization every five years.

Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said she agreed with Hinde.

“Metro is absolutely right [that] this is what states should be doing,” she said. But “states have been largely negligent about making sure programs are teaching what’s scientifically-based, not just in reading but across many content areas.”

Dozens of educators in Colorado and elsewhere told Chalkbeat in a survey last year that their teacher prep programs didn’t provide the training they needed to teach reading.

Colorado education department officials declined to comment on the council’s new report Monday, with a spokeswoman writing, “I don’t think we’re the right ones to comment on the NCTQ report because we aren’t aware of how they arrive at their ratings.”

Kathy Schultz, the dean of the school of education at the University of Colorado Boulder, said her university, like several others in Colorado, doesn’t volunteer information on course syllabi and reading material to the National Council on Teacher Quality because university leaders don’t consider the council’s methodology valid.

There’s “no real rhyme or reason to the ratings schools are getting,” she said. “It is making an assumption about the strength of teacher education programs … by looking at key words or key texts that programs use rather than thinking about teacher education being a complex process.”

Noting the University of Colorado Boulder’s status as a top-tier research institution, she said, “For us to get a D or an F is laughable.”

The university’s undergraduate prep program received a D in the new report for lacking coursework covering phonemic awareness, phonics, and vocabulary.

Schultz said she’s never had a prospective student or parent mention ratings from the National Council on Teacher Quality as a factor in their decision-making.

But Walsh believes many teacher prep programs do care about the ratings and are trying to improve their grades.

“Our whole reason for doing this monumental task is to improve teacher preparation,” she said. “Ratings are highly motivating, as is transparency.”

Walsh said when public teacher preparation programs don’t voluntarily participate by providing the requested documents, her staff files public records requests or checks the university’s website to get the information they seek. In some cases, they seek out students at those institutions to provide the syllabi for reading courses. She said once they get the initial information, they send it back to teacher prep programs for verification and allow them to submit additional evidence showing how they cover reading.

She said about 300 of the 1,200 programs reviewed in this year’s report submitted additional evidence in hopes of boosting their grades.

Private teacher preparation programs aren’t subject to public record rules, so they aren’t rated if they choose not to provide the requested information. In Colorado, Regis University was the only teacher preparation program listed but not rated in this year’s report.

Four Colorado prep programs earned Fs in the report, including Colorado Mesa University and all three alternative programs evaluated: Boettcher Teacher Residency, along with non-traditional graduate programs run by the University of Colorado Denver and Metro State.

Alternative programs didn’t fare well nationwide either, with the majority getting Ds and Fs. Colorado’s Teach for America program wasn’t evaluated because it produces too few teachers, but larger chapters in other states were included in the report. Massachusetts’ program earned a B, Baltimore’s earned a C, and Memphis’ earned an F.