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.

Price of entry

Becoming a Colorado teacher could soon require fewer transcripts, more training on English learners

Stephanie Wujek teaches science at Wiggins Middle School , on April 5, 2017 in Wiggins, Colorado. Rural areas are having a hard time finding teachers in areas like math and science. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The rules for becoming a teacher in Colorado are about to change — and officials hope the moves will help attract more math teachers and better prepare educators to work with students learning English.

The changes, which the Colorado Department of Education proposed this week, would also cut down on the paperwork needed to enter the profession and make it easier for teachers licensed in other states to re-enter the classroom after they move to Colorado.

The package of changes also includes a slimmed-down teacher evaluation rubric, the first major revision to the rules under Colorado’s 2010 teacher effectiveness law.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Less paperwork for new teachers. Applicants for a teaching license would no longer have to provide transcripts for every school they attended, only the transcripts for the school that granted them their highest degree. (Many colleges hold transcripts hostage for unpaid debt, even minor ones like unpaid parking tickets.
  • Less paperwork for teachers coming from other states. Experienced, licensed teachers from outside Colorado would no longer need to provide transcripts or prove that their teacher preparation program met Colorado standards.
  • More flexibility about previous teaching experience. Licensed teachers from other states would no longer need to have previously worked under a full-time contract to qualify for a Colorado license.
  • A new credential limited to middle-school math. Right now, Colorado only has a secondary math endorsement, which requires competency in trigonometry and calculus. That’s a barrier for teachers moving from other states with a math endorsement limited to middle school, and some see it as a roadblock for those who feel comfortable with algebra but not higher-level math.
  • Additional pathways for counselors and nurses to get licensed to work in schools.

Two bills making their way through the Colorado General Assembly this session would remove another barrier for out-of-state teachers. To qualify for a Colorado license today, teachers must have had three years of continuous teaching experience. If those bills are signed into law, applicants would only need three years of experience in the previous seven years.

Together, the proposals indicate how Colorado officials are working to make it a little easier to become a teacher in the state, which is facing a shortage in math teachers, counselors, and school nurses, among other specialties, as well as a shortage in many rural districts.

Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education, said many of the proposed changes came out of listening sessions focused on the state’s teacher shortage held around the state.  

The changes still don’t mean that if you’re a teacher anywhere in the country, you can easily become a teacher in Colorado. Just six states have full reciprocity, meaning anyone with a license from another state can teach with no additional requirements, according to the Education Commission of the States. Teachers whose licenses and endorsements don’t have a direct equivalent in Colorado would still need to apply for an interim license and then work to meet the standards of the appropriate Colorado license or endorsement.

The rule changes also add some requirements. Among those changes:

  • Prospective teachers will need more training on how to work with students learning English. Most significantly, all educator preparation programs would have to include six semester hours or 90 clock hours of training.
  • So will teachers renewing their licenses. They will need 45 clock hours, though the requirement wouldn’t kick in until the first full five-year cycle after the teacher’s most recent renewal. A teacher who just got her license renewed this year would have nine years to complete that additional training, as the requirement wouldn’t apply until the next renewal cycle. Superintendents in districts where less than 2 percent of the students are English language learners could apply for a waiver.

Colorado’s educator preparation rules already call for specialized training for teaching English language learners, but the rule change makes the requirements more explicit.

“We’re the sixth-largest state for English language learners,” O’Neil said. “We want to make sure our educators are equipped to teach all our learners.”

The rule changes would also “streamline,” in O’Neil’s words, the teacher evaluation process. Here’s what would change:

  • The five teacher quality standards would become four. “Reflection” and “leadership” are combined into “professionalism.”
  • The underlying elements of those standards would be reduced, too. Twenty-seven elements would become 17.

Fifty school districts and one charter collaborative have been testing the new evaluation system this year in a pilot program. O’Neil said most of the feedback has been positive, and the rest of the feedback has been to urge officials to winnow down the standards even further. That’s not a change she would support, O’Neil said.

“The reality is that teaching actually is rocket science,” she said. “There are a lot of practices and elements that go into good teaching.”

The state is accepting additional public comment on the rules until April 20, and a public hearing will be held in May. The new rules are expected to be adopted this summer.

Submit written feedback online or send an email to the State Board of Education at

bias in the classroom

‘Disciplinarians first and teachers second’: black male teachers say they face an extra burden

PHOTO: The Laradon School
A teacher and a student at The Laradon School in Denver work together with tactile teaching tools.

As a first-year teacher, Pierce Bond took on a remarkable responsibility: helping other teachers by disciplining or counseling misbehaving students.

That left him to make tough choices, like whether to disrupt his own class mid-lesson to handle problems in the school’s detention room. “Sometimes you have to make that decision,” he told an interviewer. “Do I stop whatever I’m doing now to go deal with this situation?”

The burden was placed on him because he is one of small share of black men in the teaching profession, posits a study published this month in The Urban Review, a peer-reviewed journal. The study relies on interview 27 black male teachers in Boston’s public schools — including Bond, who like others, was identified by a pseudonym — and found several experiences like his.

“Participants perceived that their peers and school administrators positioned them to serve primarily as disciplinarians first and teachers second,” write authors Travis Bristol of Boston University and Marcelle Mentor of the College of New Rochelle.

The paper acknowledges that interviewees were a small, non-random sample of teachers in one district, and their results might not apply elsewhere. But other researchers and policymakers, including former Secretary of Education John King, have acknowledged the phenomenon, which may contribute to schools’ difficulties recruiting and retaining teachers of color.

“Children of color and white children need to see different types of people standing in front of them and teaching them,” said Bristol. “After we recruit [teachers of color], we have to be mindful about how they are positioned in their building and draw on the things they are doing that are successful.”

In the study, which draws from Bristol’s dissertation on the experiences of black male teachers, a number of them described a similar experience: colleagues assuming that they were better able to deal with perceived behavioral issues, particularly among black boys.

One veteran teacher, Adebayo Adjayi, described how older students were regularly sent into his early elementary classroom, making his regular teaching role significantly more difficult.

“Adjayi recognized that his classroom became the school’s disciplinary room, a holding area, and he had become the school disciplinarian,” the researchers write. “Without considering the type of environment that would most support [the school’s] students who were deemed misbehaving, the fifth graders were placed in the same classroom as the prekindergartners.”

Christopher Brooks, a high school teacher, explained how seemingly small favors for colleagues began to add up. “He first said yes to one teacher who asked him, ‘Can you just talk to so-and-so because he’s not giving up his phone?’ and then to another colleague who asked, ‘Can I leave Shawn in here? He can’t seem to sit still.’ By that time, it had become the unspoken norm that Brooks would attend to his colleagues’ misbehaving students,” the study says.

Brooks says this played a role in how he arranged his day, since he knew he needed to be prepared to receive additional students some periods or solve a problem during lunch.

Other teachers told the researchers the the extra responsibilities don’t bother them.

“I understand it because I know how to speak the kids’ language,” said Okonkwo Sutton, a first-year charter school teacher. “I’ve had a very similar childhood and background as many of them.”  

Some of those interviewed questioned the assumptions behind the idea that they should serve as disciplinarians. Peter Baldwin, a novice teacher, described how a colleague suggested he would be able to help one struggling student by talking “man to man.”

“I don’t think he was just gonna respond to me better than others because I’m me, or because I’m a male or because I’m black,” Baldwin said. “I think because I sort of invested time … we’ve built a relationship.”

There’s little if any research on how this additional work or stress affects black male teachers’ job satisfaction, retention, or performance. But there is evidence that teachers of color leave the classroom at a higher rate and are less satisfied with their jobs than white teachers.

At a national level, the numbers are striking: only 2 percent of teachers are black men. Meanwhile, research has repeatedly linked black teachers to better outcomes — test scores, high school graduation rates, behavior — for black students, and that’s led to national pushes to diversify the predominantly white teaching profession, as well as local programs like NYC Men Teach.

The study emphasizes that the findings don’t apply to all black male teachers, and doesn’t try to quantify the experience of being treated as disciplinarians. But the authors suggest that treating black male teachers that way could be unfair to them, their colleagues, and their students.

“School administrators should work to develop more expansive roles for black male teachers and become more cognizant of how black male teachers are implicitly and explicitly positioned in their schools,” the paper says. “Equally important, administrators should work to develop the capacity of all teachers to support and engage all students.”