TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

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

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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.