Article Archive

TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin Newsletter



Quick look at what's inside....

The view from NCTQ
  • NCTQ names 16 programs to "Top Tier"
  • Is it easier to prepare high school teachers than elementary teachers?

Digging into the research
  • Filling the desks: Teachers make a difference
  • The English teacher ripple effect
  • If knowing is half the battle, Tennessee is winning this engagement

The view from NCTQ

NCTQ names 16 programs to “Top Tier"

With today's release of NCTQ's newest teacher prep ratings, we single out 16 programs as the "Top Tier." These programs at the top of our rankings are the best places to go to become a high school teacher.

This Top Tier list shows that the expensive big name schools are not always the best places to go to become teachers.

Top Tier programs are at the 98th and 99th percentiles of over 700 programs. They have solid admission standards, provide sufficient preparation in each candidate's intended subject area, and show them how best to teach that subject. Many also do well in teaching how to manage a classroom and provide plenty of high quality practice opportunities. These are programs that understand their most important job is to deliver well prepared teachers to classrooms. They pay a lot of attention to the nuts and bolts of what it takes to become an effective teacher.

— Kate Walsh

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Is it easier to prepare high school teachers than elementary teachers?

NCTQ's new report on teacher prep programs provides an updated perspective on how well some 700 colleges and universities are preparing high school teachers. While it is certainly no easier to teach high school than to teach 1st graders, our results certainly appear to indicate that the recipe for preparing a high school teacher is at least more straightforward.

Get this fun fact. In our ratings, only 6 percent of the high school programs got a D or an F, compared to 52 percent of the undergraduate elementary programs we rated most recently.

Hmmm. Why does there appear to be more consensus among programs for preparing their high school teachers? Or perhaps the reverse is more telling: why are there so many really weak elementary programs?

Here's what comes to mind. There's certainly much more agreement about how to prepare a high school teacher, with many fewer ideological debates over pedagogy, debates that are rampant at the elementary level (and which lead so many programs to feel justified rejecting what is scientifically based).

Content Knowledge + How to teach Content Knowledge + Practice = Job Done

Some version of this equation is what most programs appear to follow. For example, we seldom found a program that rejected the premise that high school teachers should earn a major in their subject, and in fact 99 percent of programs preparing English and mathematics teachers require as much.

Further, all programs do provide a methods course, though there is a sizeable percentage (a quarter) that fail to provide a methods course specific to a subject area.

All do provide practice student teaching -- though it is the rare program that sets any expectation for its being high quality practice.

So if there aren't a lot of wacky ideas out there derailing secondary programs, why are so many programs still struggling?

Much of the struggle can't be blamed on programs but on states and schools that prioritize staffing flexibility over quality in filling such challenging teaching areas as those that fall under the umbrella of "general science" and "general social studies." Some 48 states and DC, likely at the behest of their districts, provide at least some pathways into teaching which essentially require teachers in these areas to know enough to be able to teach cell structure, botany, and astronomy or, in the case of social studies, economics, Ancient African kingdoms, and civics.

Given STEM teacher shortages, high schools' desire for the staffing flexibility is understandable, but allowing teachers to teach subjects not adequately covered in their college preparation is not a solution tolerated in other countries. Why is it possible for other nations to staff their classrooms appropriately, but not for us to do the same?

Actually, the fact that so many programs do a lot of things well, just not systematically well across all subject areas, makes some of our findings surprising. Four out of five programs (82 percent) earn an A in their approach to preparing science teachers in their content. Fewer do so for their social studies teachers, but still a majority (65 percent). On teaching, three fourths of teacher prep programs (76 percent) earn an A for requiring methods courses specific to a subject area. It's just that when we look at the intersection of content and methods, we learn that only 42 percent systematically show future teachers both what to teach and how to teach it.

Looking at program performance across the board, our big takeaway is that the preparation of high school teachers is a big leaky bucket. Programs equip future science and social studies teachers with less content, compared to the almost uniformly higher expectations the same institutions have for future English and mathematics teachers. The nature of these overly broad subjects presents a challenge, but should not serve as an obstacle.

Teaching is a highly challenging, but extremely vital, career. Teacher preparation programs can do more to ready future elementary and secondary teachers for excellence from their first day in the classroom. Our nation's students -- and those willing to devote their careers to educating them -- deserve no less.

— Kate Walsh

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Digging into the research

Filling the desks: Teachers make a difference

For all our efforts to understand the science behind learning and effective instruction, it can be easy to forget the most basic prerequisite for school success: showing up.

For obvious reasons, student attendance makes a difference in how much students learn and the likelihood that they will graduate from high school. A recent study by Stanford's Jing Liu and Susanna Loeb (yes, it's all Susanna Loeb this TQB!) examines how teachers influence student attendance rates. Their work reveals that for some students, having teachers who encourage good attendance can mean the difference between dropping out or walking proudly across the graduation stage.

Looking at middle and high school attendance in a large California district, and controlling for factors such as time of day, achievement, and past attendance rates, they found clear evidence that teachers vary significantly in their ability to motivate students to come to class. Their work suggests that teachers who regularly have full classes one year are very likely to have high student attendance in subsequent years. This is not by chance: there is something about these teachers that enables them to engage their students year after year. The effects aren't massive—after all, most students recognize their need to attend class regardless of who is teaching—but they do translate into a meaningful reduction in dropout rates.

So, what can we do with this piece of information? Most teachers would bristle at any suggestion that they be evaluated, even in small part, on the basis of their students' attendance. There is, however, some clear momentum for increased accountability at the school level. Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Tennessee, among others, all plan to use chronic student absenteeism as one way to gauge school performance, and we're eager to see what lessons we'll learn along the way.

— Hannah Jarmolowski

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The English teacher ripple effect

Even though I'm well launched into my professional career, I still keep in touch with my old high school English teacher. From my freshman year onward, she drove me to participate more in class and had a lasting impact on my life trajectory. I know she taught me much more than the difference between metaphors and similes—and now there's research out there to prove it.

Benjamin Master (RAND), Susanna Loeb (Stanford University), and James Wyckoff (University of Virginia) investigated teachers' long-term impact on student achievement across subject areas. Using achievement data on middle schoolers in New York City and Miami-Dade County, they asked two key questions:

  1. Does having either a great English or math teacher one year influence how much a student will learn in the following years?
  2. Does having a great teacher in one subject improve students' scores in another subject?
The answers: yes and yes.

Calculating teachers' value-added scores after their students had moved on to the next grade, they found that the contributions teachers made to student achievement in the subject they taught persisted not only through the following year but for the following two years (and perhaps even longer, as that was as far as they looked).

The researchers also calculated teachers' impact on their students' achievement in another subject that they did not teach. Again, even after two years, English teachers' contribution to students' math achievement persisted, with an impact ranging from about a quarter to nearly half as much as their impact on students' English scores (comparing findings for the two districts).

However, the reverse didn't hold for math teachers, and it's not hard to understand why. Students learn broad skills in English class that translate across disciplines, such as the ability to read a math problem. In our scramble to address the shortage of STEM teachers as well as our nation's lackluster achievement in math and science, we would do well to remember the power of a top-notch English teacher.

— Lisa Swanson

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If knowing is half the battle, Tennessee is winning this engagement

We've long been excited about the wealth of information – and its potential uses – coming from Tennessee's teacher prep report cards (see here and here). The state's Department of Education is bringing that potential to life, as they describe in this new report.

The highlights: the state is collecting a ton of data on both their prep programs and what's happening in their K-12 school districts. Even better, they're thinking strategically about how to use all those data – including incorporating their report cards (which you can find here) into the teacher prep program approval process and integrating teacher prep data and school district data so that the two systems can work in concert.

Why does all this matter? Whereas other states are concerned about teacher shortages without much information on where or why those shortages are happening, Tennessee is able to say with confidence that while there's a decline in the number of grads from their teacher prep programs, "the bulk of this decline has been in the number of veteran teachers obtaining additional degrees rather than in the number of new teachers entering the profession." Moreover, the state can identify the specific subjects in which they have a surplus (English language arts) and where they have a shortage (ESL, world languages, and science) and in which types of schools these shortages are most pressing (those in high-poverty districts) – so that they can target solutions to these very clearly defined problems.

And it gets better. The report outlines specific ways they want school districts and prep programs to learn from these data and to work together. For example, the state provides detailed information (beyond what's publicly available) on prep programs' graduates' placement, retention, and performance – including information from their classroom observations – that those programs can use to guide improvement. The state also urges school districts to project their teacher staffing needs further in advance and to share that information with prep programs so that programs can recruit the types of teachers that districts want to hire and direct those aspiring teachers to the districts that need them.

We can't help but point out one area for improvement – Tennessee's public-facing report cards don't distinguish data by program. They would be even better if they showed, for example, if hiring and retention rates are different for elementary versus secondary prep programs at an institution, or if the undergrad or graduate programs tend to produce more effective teachers.

But, we're not ones to let the perfect be the enemy of the good – and we certainly see a lot of good in what Tennessee is up to.

— Hannah Putman

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