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Teacher-Prep for High School Science and Social Studies Found to Fall Short

Too many teacher prep programs are doing a poor job of covering content that future science and social studies teachers need to master, according to a new report on the programs preparing high school teachers.

Only 57 percent of education programs are providing high school teacher candidates a strong enough foundation in the science and social studies subject matter they will need to do their job, claims the report released Thursday by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington group that tracks teacher policies. The report evaluates 717 undergraduate programs that train high school teachers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia based on their coverage of subject-specific content, admissions requirements, and other topics.

Included in NCTQ's list of top-ranked education programs are Arizona State University in Phoenix, Hunter College in New York, and the University of Minnesota in Duluth. Here is a list of the ed programs by ranking. NCTQ's president Kate Walsh said in a press call that the report looks for the very basics of what a teacher needs in order to be prepared to lead a classroom, so the schools at the bottom of the list should set off alarm bells. She said that the lowest-ranked schools "are not making sure teachers know their content or how to teach it. It's very disturbing."

While 81 percent of programs preparing future science teachers earned a grade of A, as measured by sufficient coursework and a passing grade on what NCTQ deems "sufficient" state licensure tests, only 65 percent of programs qualified for that grade when it came to preparing social studies teachers. The deficiency in the lower-performing programs in both subjects, the report's authors say, can be attributed to the needs of states and districts that clamor for teachers certified in more than one subject. Programs trying to prepare candidates to teach in more than one science or social studies subject—for example, not just biology but also chemistry, earth science, and/or physics—demonstrated a huge drop in quality. 

Yet most states, 37, allow education programs to prepare teachers of subjects like chemistry and biology to earn certification in general science. "You can imagine how much coursework you would need to major in physics, chemistry, earth science, and biology," Walsh said. "You would be in college for 10 years. Programs struggle with the right balance, but there are many schools of ed that have figured that out and they are at the top of our list."

The study also found that only 42 percent of programs provide courses combining content knowledge with teaching method, and less than half of programs (47 percent) require "high-quality" experience doing practice teaching as part of their methods courses. Only 44 percent of programs evaluated their candidates' teaching and classroom management, while the rest taught management skills but never observed candidates under real conditions.

Criticism of the Study's Methodology

NCTQ's education school grades are based on evaluations of program materials including course catalogues, degree plans, course syllabi, and student-teaching agreements with districts, not on in-class observations. This method of judging education schools based on a review of documents and procedures has long been criticized.

Benjamin Riley, the founder and executive director of Deans for Impact, a coalition of education school directors that aims to overhaul teacher training, argues that document review doesn't warrant the judgements in the study. He said he's learned from visits to education schools that descriptions don't always capture what's actually going on in any given program. "The reality is I don't look at these reports as being able to say very much about programs that are truly strong or truly falling behind," Riley told Education Week. "More interesting to me is the higher-level data on which states are doing certification tests in which areas versus which states aren't. That's helpful. But when they get to specific claims about programs, that's where I think they're on thinner ice."

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education also took issue with the study's methodology in this blog post. AACTE represents colleges and universities that have teacher-prep programs.

For her part, Walsh argues that visits to ed programs would be impractical for NCTQ's purposes. "Our lens is not to comment on the quality of instruction," she said. "Our lens is to make sure teachers are getting the fundamentals of what they need."

Riley admits schools of education have work to do, but he doesn't see grading them as useful. "People have been saying for a long time that colleges of education are hopeless, retrograde, choose whichever negative adjective you want to use, but the reality is there are outstanding folks out there working hard," he said. "This is not to say that there isn't tremendous room for improvement, but the notion that they're going to be shamed into improvement? I think that hypothesis has been tested, and I think we know what the evidence says."

This new study on education schools preparing high school teachers follows the December 2016 release of a report on education programs that prepare elementary teachers. You can read our breakdown of that earlier report here. Walsh said the studies show that programs preparing high school teachers are doing a better job than those preparing elementary teachers. Only 6 percent of programs adequately prepare elementary school teachers for their role in the classroom, according to Walsh. "That is not the case at the high school level, which is comforting," said Walsh. "The road is not as long to fix some of these problems."

NCTQ's next review of teacher prep programs, due in fall 2017, will focus on graduate and alternative-route elementary programs.

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