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Iowa fails in teacher prep, earning below-average grades

By   /   January 25, 2013  /   No Comments

By Sheena Dooley | Iowa Watchdog

DES MOINES – Iowa’s teacher-preparation programs fail to produce graduates who are ready to lead a classroom, according to a new study that has quickly drawn criticism from some educators.

The National Council on Teacher Quality released its “2012 State Teacher Policy Yearbook” this week, giving Iowa overall grades for its teacher preparation that ranked just below the national D-plus average. The state fell short when it came to requiring elementary and secondary teachers to pass content-specific courses, holding colleges of education accountable for the classroom performance of their graduates and ensuring student teachers have demonstrated success leading students, according to the report.

Iowa teacher preparation programs need revamping, study says.

It cited Iowa as one of 36 states that showed no improvement over the previous year as measured by the policy changes, or lack thereof, state legislators adopted.

“The governor in Iowa has been talking about these issues,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the group. “The director of the state department has been talking about them. There are some policy pieces that are playing out in the regulation writing process. At the policy-level, the ball just needs to keep rolling.”

Jason Glass, director of the Iowa Department of Education, did not outright contest the group’s findings, but he categorized their measurements of success as policy objectives and not an objective ruler.

Additionally, Iowa did take steps last year to improve teacher preparation, with lawmakers approving a requirement for incoming teachers to pass tests in pedagogy and content, he said. Officials with the Iowa State Board of Education are also just a few months away from taking action on a proposal to redesign accreditation standards for colleges of education, although details remain vague.

The National Council on Teacher Quality has come under fire in recent years by state leaders, education groups and colleges across the nation because of its annual grading of teacher schools in U.S. News & World Report, which some said wasn’t needed because of current state oversight. They also questioned the motives of the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, which is frequently quoted as a leading source in teacher preparation programs.

The group has come far since its creation in 2000 by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, according to a blog post by Diane Ravitch, a New York University research professor who served on the foundation’s board when it created the council.

At the time, conservatives were upset with teacher training institutions for not teaching enough basic skills and academics. They created the council as a way to promote alternative certification and break the power of teacher preparation colleges, Ravitch wrote in the post. A few years later, the group was also one of two to receive a combined $677,000 grant from President George W. Bush’s administration to give No Child Left Behind positive media, she added.

Despite these concerns, Kate Walsh, the Council’s president, came to Des Moines to speak two years ago at Gov. Terry Branstad’s national education summit that highlighted issues facing the state’s schools and provided examples of how others have successfully addressed them. Walsh gave multiple presentations that were based on the council’s solutions for improving education, some of which were reflected in the report released this week.

“I agree teacher preparation is a major driver for schools,” Glass said. “But this study is different than to say if a report card came out that said how many kids there were in poverty – objective indicators. This is policy-driven.”

Jean Hessburg, spokeswoman for the Iowa State Education Association, said she is typically skeptical of grades from groups like the national council. As an example, she offered the low performance of states that received B-, the top grade of any state. Alabama, Florida, Indiana, and Tennessee all earned the high grade, but typically produce sub-par results when it comes to student performance, she said.

She later said the union would not comment.

The report criticized Iowa practices involving admission to teacher-preparation programs; elementary, middle and high school preparation; student teaching; and teacher-preparation accountability.

Officials with the group recommended Iowa require a common admissions test and its participants to score above the 50th percentile, while requiring that elementary teacher candidates take a content test assessing all subject areas.  Graduates should also pass a test gauging their skills in the “science of reading” and specialize in one content area, officials wrote in the report.

Additionally, Iowa middle and high school teacher candidates should pass a content exam for every subject area they teach. Student teachers should have to show their effectiveness through classroom results and teacher-preparation programs need to be held accountable, whether it’s collecting data to monitor the quality of educators they produce or setting minimum performance standards, according to the study.

“The framework we developed was developed by looking at available resources, stakeholder groups and best practices,” Jacobs said. “The good news is that states are making progress. The progress is not tremendous. But it’s showing that this is starting to grab the attention of states and they are starting to move forward.”

Sheena Dooley can be contacted at dooley@iowawatchdog.org.

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