Teacher Accountability Starts with Better Teacher Preparation

Accountability initiatives like Race to the Top has focused on creating models that gauge teacher effectiveness by linking evaluations (in part) to student progress. Under New York’s new legislation, for example, 40 percent of a teacher’s grade will be based on standardized tests (with the balance based on more subjective measures such as principal observations). In Florida and Colorado, the minimum will be 50%. All told, 15 to 20 states have passed or are considering overhauling legislation to meet this federal mandate. Such emphasis on test scores is misguided, however, considering that teacher quality, though the most influential in-school factor, generally accounts for less than 20% of student outcomes (some, like studies by Rivkin, Hanushek & Kain, 1998 and Goldhaber, Bewer & Anderson, 1999, assert that teachers account for no more than 8%).

Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Blog argues that random error, weighting issues, and the complex interaction of factors make teacher evaluations fraught with risk, and calls into question the validity of such performance-based evaluations. Though significant, this issue skirts an even more fundamental question:

How can teachers be made more accountable if they are not adequately prepared?

A new study released by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) found that three-quarter of teacher preparation programs nationwide were “generally weak, with fully 25 percent falling into the most deficient category.” The report concludes that:

  • there is a saturation of student teachers and not enough cooperating teachers to make this process efficient and beneficial;
  • placement schools, where student teachers learn the trade, lack rigorous criteria for selecting cooperating teachers;
  • teacher prep institutions have anemic influence with school districts on student placement and preparation; and
  • institutions also provide inadequate supervision, guidance, and feedback for student teachers to grow.

I was a product of such programs; I remember as a student teacher in New York City in the early 2000s only sporadic observations by my institution supervisor. In fact, my cooperating teacher, though a natural talent, was himself a student teacher just the prior year, with little pedagogical experience to pass on. Convenience and expediency characterized the whole process, which lends further credence to the NCTQ report. And one quickly learns that teaching in America is a personal enterprise — how you run your class is really up to you — an insular culture that permeates and ultimately undermines the profession. A recent pilot program in New York revealed almost 1 in 5 teachers (18%) to be “ineffective,” according to Crain’s New York Business. No doubt this lack of preparation has contributed to the high attrition rate (nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave within five years, according to the National Education Association), which of course further debilitates the profession.

The bottom line? New teachers are not being developed properly for teacher evaluations to have any meaning. If the purpose of the proposed evaluations is to ensure high quality teaching and student learning, then a poorly prepared teacher will not only fail the evaluation but also imperil student progress. The lack of rigor in the teaching profession, reflected by the low priority of education in American culture, will contribute to a collective and systemic failure. Only now has the talk of rigor reached critical mass.

The solution is for educators policymakers is to overhaul teacher prep programs (as I have advocated in a previous post, Putting the Focus on the Profession, Not the Teachers, and as outlined in both the NCEE report, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform and the 2010 McKinsey Report, Closing the Talent Gap). This means emphasizing more rigorous screening, preparation, and support as has been done in high achieving countries like Finland, South Korea, and Singapore. Change expert and education reform authority Michael Fullan calls this capacity-building. Only 23% of new American teachers come from the top third of college graduates, according to the McKinsey Report, compared with Finland, for example, where only 15% of college graduate applicants are admitted. The result? A higher paid, respected group of professionals capable of making autonomous decisions that helps all students. Isn’t that what Americans should be striving for?

Addendum: The New York Post reported that the teacher certification tests for New York has a pass rate of over 99%, which certainly confirms my assertions that: 1) current teacher preparation programs are feckless; and that 2) proper recruitment is at the root of the problem, followed by substandard support and preparation. See details of the article here.  

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