Three years ago, Dropout Nation noted the rampant and abysmally high levels of grade inflation among university school of education majors. As Cory Koedel of the University of Missouri noted in a series of studies he conducted that were the subject of the piece, the average ed school major often had grade point averages often two-thirds of a grade point or more greater than peers in math, science, economics, and even humanities courses. This is in spite of evidence over that ed school candidates often earn lower grade point averages in their basic university course subjects than their peers heading into other majors.
Considering the shoddy quality of ed school curricula and training compared to those of such subjects as economics and the hard sciences, Koedel’s study (along with reports such as former Teachers College President Arthur Levine’s 2006 survey showing that 54 percent of the nation’s teachers are taught at colleges with low admission requirements.) was a reminder of the reality that there is no correlation between the credentials teachers are granted and their ability to improve student achievement over time. In fact, success in ed school doesn’t even ensure that teachers will remain on in classrooms beyond their first year.
So it isn’t shocking that the National Council of Teacher Quality turned up more evidence of grade inflation at the nation’s ed schools in a report it released today. The findings should once again focus reformers on overhauling how we recruit and train teachers — including bypassing ed schools (if not shutting them down altogether).
As NCTQ researchers Hannah Putnam and Julie Greenberg (along with the organization’s president, Kate Walsh), point out, 295 of the 509 ed schools surveyed had grading standards for students that were far lower than those for other majors on campus. At these schools, the percentage of students earning honor’s level GPAs is at least 10 percentage points higher than that for all other majors. Even worse, 44 percent of ed school majors coming out of schools surveyed earned honors-level GPA’s, which is 14 points higher than the average honors rate for other majors. An average ed school major is 50 percent more likely to graduate with honors than their peers in business and other areas of study.
The numbers get even worse. At 34 out of 40 universities where the percentage of ed school majors earning honors-level GPAs is 20 percentage points higher than for business, psychology, and nursing counterparts, ed school students account for the top third of all honors recipients, a far higher distribution than for the three other fields of study. In fact, ed school majors account for a far high higher distribution of honors students than nearly every other major field of study on those campuses. As Putnam, Greenberg, and Walsh put it, “no other popular major rivals teacher preparation for being consistently among the majors in the top third in terms of proportion of honors graduates.”
Why is the grade inflation so problematic? It’s because grades for ed school students, like test score growth data for kids in K-12, serve as a signal of how well they are prepared to work in classrooms upon graduation. A high grade point average, for example, tells an aspiring teacher that they have at least mastered the basics of working in classrooms and helping kids master their own studies. But this only works if the grades are realistic, and are obtained from successful mastery of coursework that actually prepares teachers for the challenges of working with the kids they are supposed to serve.
But as we have learned a long time ago, far too many ed schools do a poor job of providing aspiring teachers with the coursework and training they need to succeed in classrooms. This is a point upon which Putnam, Greenberg, and Walsh further elaborate in their evaluation of ed school courses. Far too often, ed schools aren’t providing criterion-referenced assignments, ones in which aspiring teachers must learn a clear scope of knowledge about a subject and are provided high levels of critical feedback from professors in order for them to gain much-needed challenge for growth and mastery.
Half of the 6,000 assignments given in 862 courses at 33 ed school programs surveyed by NCTQ were criterion-deficient, or lacked the clear scope of knowledge and feedback aspiring teachers need to achieve mastery in their work. Because these courses were so lacking in quality, students ended up getting plenty of easy As, giving them a false sense of accomplishment and preparation. The consequences of the shoddy quality of ed school coursework ends up being borne upon both teachers (in the form of high levels of college debt that can be difficult to pay off), by districts (who struggle to provide kids with high-quality teachers), and ultimately, by children and the communities in which they live.
None of NCTQ’s conclusions should be shocking. [Nor should the response from defenders of ed schools such as the American Federation of Teachers, which gave $69,333 to Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, a key player in defending the ed school lobby formed by last year’s merger of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council.] As Dropout Nation has pointed out over the past four years, ed schools remain stubbornly wielded to approaches that have long ago proven to be ineffective in recruiting and training aspiring teachers.
Ed school professors, many of whom have never taught in K-12 classrooms, insist on filling the heads of their students with pedagogy (or instructional theories) that favor their ideologies instead of focusing on teaching practices that actually work for kids, especially poor and minority children in urban settings. Ed schools also fail to weed out potential ed school candidates who won’t make the cut in the classroom by using techniques developed by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee guru Martin Haberman and Teach For America, all of which focus on subject-matter competency, entrepreneurial self-starter ability, and empathy for all children regardless of background. Both failures are among the ultimate reasons why half of all teachers end up leaving the profession in five years.
Meanwhile the universities that run the ed schools are far too concerned with milking their cash cows instead of improving the quality of their instruction and coursework. This is clear in the fact that in many states, many ed schools are producing so many graduates for so few positions that most don’t go into teaching; in Michigan, Supt. Mike Flanagan noted three years ago that, two-thirds of the Wolverine State’s 7,500 ed school grads leave the state, either to work in districts in other states, or perhaps to go into other fields. What is quite likely is that savvy collegians have figured out that ed school courses are easy to take, so they gravitate to those fields with no intention of ever working in classrooms. Ed school deans with any pride should find this troubling.
Certainly the NCTQ report points to the need to continue developing alternative teacher preparation programs that are outside of the university campus. This includes further expansion of outfits such as Teach For America as well as Urban Teacher Residency United, which released a report earlier this week on how two of its most-successful residency programs can serve as models for teacher training. The efforts of outfits such as Relay Graduate School of Education, an ed school program run by a collection of charter school operators, should be expanded to the undergraduate level; an aspiring teacher can earn a major in math, science, or reading, while also taking summer courses with an independent ed school program that includes an internship with a charter or parochial school.
At the same time, states and the federal government must also be willing to do what the Carnegie Corporation did a century ago with the release of the Flexner Report on medical schools: Force the worst ed schools to shut down. One can easily argue that shutting down the worst-performing half of ed schools currently in operation — something that resulted from the Flexner Report — would definitely help improve the quality of teachers going into classrooms. Forcing those that remain to embrace the approaches being developed by Haberman, Teach For America and Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools (as well as new innovations in the field) would go a long way toward helping aspiring teachers become high-quality instructors.
But the need to move beyond the traditional ed school model extends beyond teacher training. As American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess points out this week, ed schools are still the go-to forums for education research. While think tanks such as the American Institutes for Research and Brookings Institution are increasingly big players in the field, ed schools are still dominant because of the patina of respectability given to them by their parent universities. Developing new models of education research activities similar to what is done by the Federalist Society on the legal front, a suggestion offered up by Hess, is definitely something to do. At the same time, it may be time for reformers (including charter school operators) to further expand the array of institutions outside of ed schools that can engage in research in new ways. This includes actually teaming up with charter school operators and traditional districts (some of which already conduct their own research) to conduct such activities in real time.
NCTQ’s latest report is another reminder that overhauling teacher training is as critical as ending near-lifetime employment to improving the quality of teaching for our kids. We owe our children better than this.