The facts in a syllabus

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It's been almost ten years since David Steiner (now Dean of the School of Education at CUNY-Hunter, then posted at Boston University's School of Education) published his analysis of training provided to teacher candidates, an analysis conducted using syllabi from teacher preparation coursework. Steiner, with his assistant Susan Rozen, looked at syllabi at only 16 programs, but it was the first means of evaluating teacher education that could possibly be brought to the scale of the field itself. (Our attempt to evaluate as many of the nation's 1,400 schools of education as reasonably possible takes a page from Abraham Flexner, whose 1910 review of the nation's medical schools was so powerful because it involved every such school.)

After using 10 pilot studies to hone our techniques of evaluation using syllabi and other sources, our team of about 100 staff and analysts eventually evaluated teacher education at a total of 1,130 institutions of higher education -- at all but the tiniest producers of new teachers. We applied aspects of Steiner's trail brazing methodology in evaluations of over half of our standards.

When Steiner first published his standout paper (in an otherwise pedestrian book about teacher certification that includes my own ho-hum chapter), he was blasted by his colleagues, paying a high professional price for calling out programs for not teaching scientifically-based reading instruction and for depriving teacher candidates of ideologically balanced readings (EdWeek reports here on a draft of the study). Steiner responded to critics who insisted that syllabi could not be taken at face value for the purpose of assessing course content by wondering if college students shouldn't take them seriously either.

Some things don't change...

Syllabi can't reveal everything about teacher preparation and that's why we use many other sources of data, and strongly support ed schools and states collecting their own data and assembling their own multi-faceted accountability systems. But syllabi can be used to establish some critical facts -- such as the fact that across 700 teacher training programs, there are 866 different required textbooks on reading instruction. We estimate that's at least ten times more than the number of required textbooks for core introductory coursework in biology or math. Or the fact that over 80 percent of the 650 or so programs we evaluated on assessment assignments commendably require that candidates prepare both formative and summative assessments. Syllabi certainly do provide useful information -- some painting an unflattering picture of teacher education, some painting a more flattering one.