prep problems

A new study shows why it’s so hard to improve teacher preparation

Dramatically reshaping how teachers are trained — by emulating great teacher preparation programs and shutting down ineffective ones — has been a key priority of many states and even, under the Obama administration, the federal government.

Fierce debates have ensued over how to hold training programs accountable for making sure novice teachers are ready for the classroom on day one.

Now a new study casts doubt on those efforts for a simple reason: It’s hard to identify good or bad teacher preparation programs, at least as measured by student achievement.

That’s the provocative conclusion of research by Paul von Hippel of University of Texas at Austin and Laura Bellows of Duke University.

“It appears that differences between [programs] are rarely detectable, and that if they could be detected they would usually be too small to support effective policy decisions,” write von Hippel and Bellows.

The study, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, follows other peer-reviewed research comparing teacher training programs in Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, New York City, Texas and Washington.

Those studies try to isolate the impact of teacher preparation programs — including schools of education and alternative certification initiatives — on student test scores. It’s a difficult task, since there are two degrees of separation between a teacher training program and students taking state tests, and researchers use complex value-added models to control for a number of factors.

The studies come to differing conclusions. Some suggest that programs vary substantially in effectiveness, but most find few clear differences among a state’s programs.

In the latest research, von Hippel and Bellows reanalyze those six studies using a consistent method. They find that in all states the differences between teacher preparation programs are small and it’s difficult to pick out top-notch programs with confidence.

“This is troubling because singling out [programs] is a prerequisite to the policy goal of expanding strong [programs] and shuttering weak ones,” they write.

Indeed, a number of states — 16, according to the researchers — have made efforts to evaluate training programs based in part on value-added measures. The Obama administration issued regulations encouraging states to evaluate their teacher prep programs by measuring student learning, though they were scrapped by Congress and the Trump administration earlier this year.

Dan Goldhaber, who has studied Washington’s teacher training programs and is a professor at the University of Washington, said this latest study is consistent with his own findings.

“I think there’s relatively little variation in the value-added effectiveness of teachers who hold credentials from different programs,” he said.

Still, he notes, the size of the impact is in the eye of the beholder. At most, the difference between attending a good versus an average training program is comparable to the difference in effectiveness between the average first- and third-year teacher — definitely not big, but not necessarily zero.

An inherent limitation of this research is that it focuses exclusively on the fraction of teachers who end up in tested grades and subjects, largely fourth- through eighth-grade math and English.

It may be more helpful to judge teacher preparation programs by multiple measures. For instance, recent research has found that there is substantial variation in how different programs affect teachers’ scores on classroom observations, which can be used to evaluate all teachers, not just those in tested areas.

Still, isolating the impact of training remains a challenge, since teachers are not randomly assigned to schools, and some programs aim to place teachers in high-poverty schools where attaining high ratings may be more difficult.

Bellows, the Duke researcher, warned against chasing after programs that might be appear effective simply because of a statistical fluke.

“You don’t want to remodel our [teacher preparation programs] based on one that looks really good when … it’s just by chance,” she said.

However, Bellows and von Hippel’s research suggests that there is some reason for optimism. In five of the six states, there was at least one large program that appears significantly better at preparing teachers in at least one subject.

“If we are very careful, we can occasionally identify a [program] that is truly exceptional,” they write.

Training teachers

More literacy coaches to bolster Tennessee’s drive to boost student reading

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

More than half of its school districts signed on last year when Tennessee created a network of literacy coaches to help classroom teachers improve their students’ reading.

Now entering the program’s second year, another 16 districts are joining up. That means two-thirds of Tennessee districts will have instructional supports in place aimed at addressing the state’s lackluster reading levels.

Tennessee has a reading problem. Less than half of its students in grades 3-8 were considered proficient in 2015, the last year for which test scores are available. In Memphis, the numbers are even more stunning. Less than a third of Shelby County Schools’ third-graders are reading on grade level.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during the statewide launch of Read to be Ready in 2016.

The state wants to get 75 percent of third-graders proficient by 2025. (New scores coming out this fall will help track progress.)

The coaching network is a major component of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready drive, launched in 2016 by Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. The focus is helping teachers improve literacy instruction for the state’s youngest students.

So far, some 200 coaches have worked directly with more than 3,000 teachers in 83 districts, including all four urban districts. This fall, 99 out of the state’s 146 school systems will participate.

About 92 percent of classroom teachers report that coaching is improving their teaching, even as many coaches say they are stretched too thin, according to a state report released Wednesday. Inadequate planning time for teachers is another barrier to success, the report notes.

To join the coaching network, districts must commit to funding a reading coach who will support about 15 teachers. New districts signing up this year are:

  • Scott County Schools
  • Smith County School System
  • Pickett County Schools
  • Jackson County Schools
  • Macon County Schools
  • Clay County Schools
  • Sumner County Schools
  • Dyer County Schools
  • Wayne County Schools
  • Bedford County Schools
  • Benton County Schools
  • Alamo City School
  • Polk County Schools
  • Kingsport City Schools
  • Oak Ridge Schools
  • Dayton City School

A complete list of participating districts can be found here.

Getting there

With new contract, first-year teachers in Detroit could soon make more than peers in Grosse Pointe and other suburbs

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
First-year teachers in Detroit could soon earn more than their peers in neighboring districts. The gray bar in this chart shows where starting salaries were in Detroit last year. The green one shows how the contract could change that.

For years, Detroit’s main school district has paid some of the lowest starting teacher salaries in the region but Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says that’s about to change.

The teachers contract approved by the Detroit school board Tuesday night doesn’t include enough of a pay increase to bring city teachers back to where they were in 2011 when a state-appointed emergency manager ordered a 10 percent pay cut.

But data compiled by the Detroit district show that the new agreement, which will boost teacher wages by more than 7 percent, would pay enough that starting teachers could soon earn more than their peers in Dearborn, Grosse Pointe and other nearby districts.

“It doesn’t begin to address the injustice [of pay cuts and frozen wages] but this is a first step,” Vitti told the board as it met at Osborn High School Tuesday.

The new contract was approved last month by members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers union. Now that the school board has signed off, the contract will go to a state financial review board for final approval.

Vitti, who hopes the higher salaries will make it easier for the district to fill more than 400 vacant teaching positions, showed the board a series of charts and graphs that illustrated some effects of the new contract.

Among the charts he flashed on a screen was one that compared starting teacher salaries in Detroit to other districts, before and after the new contract. Another slide showed how salaries would change for teachers at every level of the pay scale. A third warned that the city’s main district could be careening toward a “cliff” if it doesn’t recruit enough young teachers to replace the district’s predominantly senior educators as they begin to retire.

See the charts — and additional details about the contract — below. The last page spells out other steps Vitti says he plans to take to address the teacher shortage.