Most Student-Teaching Experiences Are Weak, Report Says

July 21, 2011

Only a small fraction of the nation's teacher-preparation programs do an adequate job of overseeing their student-teaching field experiences, according to a report released on Thursday by the National Council on Teacher Quality. But in the report's appendix, leaders of many of the 134 programs included in the study argue that the council used flawed assumptions and faulty data.

Field experiences in the classroom are typically the culmination of an elementary-education major's training. Most of those experiences are weak, the council's report asserts, because teacher-preparation programs do not carefully select the mentor teachers who work with the novices. Too often, the report suggests, student teachers are simply thrown into whatever classroom happens to be convenient for the local principal.

The council's report concludes that only 14 percent of the programs in the study require mentor teachers to have all three of the following traits: at least three years of teaching experience, a demonstrated high ability to improve student learning, and demonstrated skill at mentoring adults.

The council also insists that teacher-preparation programs must have full control over the matching of student teachers with mentor teachers. (Just under half of the programs in the study met the standard, according to the council.)

But that idea was scorned by several of the program leaders who responded in the report's appendix. "We believe a collaborative process with site administrators is superior," wrote a respondent from Wayne State College, in Nebraska, because school principals are likely to know about specific circumstances that might make teachers good candidates to serve as mentors during a given semester. Programs that follow the council's principle might find themselves in violation of the standards of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which requires that teacher-preparation programs and their partner school districts "jointly determine" the placement of student teachers.

The council conducted the study by requesting several kinds of documents from the 134 programs, including student-teaching handbooks and contracts between the programs and their partner school districts. Twelve programs asked not to participate in the study, but the council sought the records from them anyway, in some cases by using open-records requests.

"It is the responsibility of any publicly approved teacher-preparation program, whether located in a public or a private institution, to be transparent and responsive," the report says.

Controversial Rankings

Similar data about the quality of student teachers' field experiences will be included in the council's forthcoming rankings of teacher-preparation programs, a project that it is conducting with U.S. News & World Report. Those rankings, which are expected to appear late in 2012, have already aroused concern and criticism from deans of education.

The council derived its criteria for strong student-teaching programs partly from a widely discussed 2008 study by five scholars who looked at characteristics that seemed to affect the performance of novice teachers in New York City's public schools. The study found that, all else equal, new teachers who had attended programs with strong "oversight of student teaching" were more effective in the classroom.

In the appendix of the new report, many respondents have unkind words for the council's model and for the quality of its data collection. Some insist that they do require mentor teachers to have strong demonstrated skills as mentors, even if there is no explicit language to that effect in their contracts with school districts. A respondent from Montclair State University calls one of the council's standards "patently absurd," and a respondent from the University of Northern Colorado calls another standard "picayune and irrelevant."

In interviews with The Chronicle on Thursday, two prominent education deans whose programs were not included in the study said that the council's report raises important questions, but that real reform of student-teaching programs will require more direct assessments of student teachers' capabilities. Can they accurately diagnose students' difficulties in reading and mathematics? Can they elicit "student thinking"—that is, can they coax students to explain how and why they went about solving a problem? If they cannot demonstrate specific skills like those, the deans said, students should be required to go back for a second field experience.

"The tradition has been that people believe that if you just get student teachers out there in classrooms for 10 weeks, they'll get experience and they'll learn what to do," said Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan's School of Education. "But if that were true, then we would have an amazingly skilled teaching population."

In the coming year, Ms. Ball said, Michigan intends to change its system so that student teachers go on medical-school-style "rounds" in groups of three, observing high-quality teachers as they demonstrate specific skills. And full-time Michigan faculty members will be responsible for observing student teachers in the classroom and ensuring that they are demonstrating the specific skills they need to master.

Robert C. Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, made similar arguments.

"Our programs need to build competencies in our teaching candidates," he said. "If they don't demonstrate those competencies in their field experiences, then they should go back until they hit the target."

While he was generally sympathetic toward the council's report, Mr. Pianta took issue with its suggestion that elementary-education programs are producing too many graduates. "The work force that's out there is aging," he said. "I'd want to be very careful about shrinking the pipeline now."