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Do teacher prep programs lack rigor?

Finding of grade inflation criticized by teacher educators
University Business, January 2015
A National Council on Teacher Quality report compared grades given in teacher preps courses to other majors. (Click to enlarge)
A National Council on Teacher Quality report compared grades given in teacher preps courses to other majors. (Click to enlarge)

A National Council on Teacher Quality report citing a lack of rigor and grade inflation in teacher preparation courses is being disputed by the organization that represents college and university education programs.

The November report, “Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them”—which is based on graduation data from 500 institutions surveyed—found that students graduate with honors from teaching programs at a higher rate than do students in other majors. The NCTQ blamed a lack of rigor, saying teaching candidates are given assignments that are too broad and subjective to prepare them for the classroom.

“Aspiring teachers are effectively being misled into thinking they’re very well prepared for the profession,” says Kate Walsh, president of the NCTQ. “But often when they arrive in the classroom, they feel like they’re hitting a brick wall, and the A’s that they got don’t really signal to them that they were prepared.”

But Linda Houser, incoming president of the Association of Teacher Educators, says the “Easy A’s” report makes questionable assumptions based on unsound data collection and analysis.

“On GPA, they made the assumption that because more education students received honors, the rigor of the programs tends to be less,” Houser says. “That’s one of the assumptions that’s a huge leap—there’s no research to show that connection.”

A common teaching program entrance requirement is a 3.0 GPA, along with passing entrance exams in many states. These standards keep students with lower grades and less academic ability from entering teaching programs, Houser says. Also, education students earn many of their grades outside the education programs, such as from math or science courses.

“If you’re only accepting those who do well, who are academically talented and gifted, you’re naturally going to have students graduating with higher GPAs,” Houser says.

The reason for the lack of rigor, according to the NCTQ report, is that students in education programs are given too many “criterion-deficient assignments.” Walsh says this type of assignment is too subjective, and asks students to only give opinions—not to demonstrate mastery of specific skills.

The report details two assignment types:

  • A criterion-deficient assignment might ask an education student to write a lesson plan to teach an elementary school science concept, taking into account the composition of the class and needs of its students.
  • A more rigorous, criterion-referenced assignment would require the candidate to develop the lesson plan for a specific third-grade science objective that will accommodate a class’ gifted students and English-language learners.

Researchers analyzed more than 1,100 education and noneducation courses at 33 institutions. They found students are far more likely to get an A on criterion-deficient assignments assignments, which are far more common in education courses.

“The solutions are pretty easy,” Walsh says. “This is simply a dean sitting down with faculty and saying, ‘Let’s examine the kind of assignments we’re handing out.’ ” The report recommends identifying common standards to define excellence and that faculty not award a grade of A to work that is merely competent.

Houser criticizes the report’s assessment of rigor, noting that it was based only on a review of syllabi, which don’t always show the depth of the work.

Also, subjective and broad assignments are not necessarily bad: They can help teaching candidates develop vital skills, such as creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking. “We don’t want candidates to regurgitate a correct answer or focus on one narrow, limited situation,” Houser says. Creative problem-solving is what these educators are going to have to do in their future classrooms, she adds.

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