The state should ensure that its teacher preparation programs provide elementary teachers with a broad liberal arts education, providing the necessary foundation for teaching to the Common Core or similar state standards.
Nebraska does not ensure that its elementary teacher candidates are adequately prepared to teach a broad range of elementary content.
Beginning September 1, 2015, all new elementary teacher candidates must pass the Praxis II Elementary Education: Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment test. As a condition of initial licensure. Unfortunately, this test combines content with a pedagogy assessment and does not report teacher performance in each subject area, meaning that it is possible to pass the test and still fail some subject areas.
Nebraska only requires its early childhood education unified teacher candidates, who are allowed to teach up through grade 3, to pass the Education of Young Children test, which is not a content test.
Nebraska also does not require its elementary teacher candidates to earn an academic content specialization.
Nebraska Department of Education Title 92 Chapter 20, Section 005.08 and Chapter 24, Section 006.21 Praxis II Requirements http://www.education.ne.gov/EducatorPrep/Archive/EmailArchive/Attachments/ContentTestScoresChart.pdf
Require all elementary teacher candidates—including candidates for an early childhood license—to pass a subject-matter test designed to ensure sufficient content knowledge of all subjects.
Nebraska should require both a rigorous content test as a condition of certification and separate, meaningful passing scores for each area on the test. Use of a composite passing score offers no assurance of adequate knowledge in each subject area. A candidate may achieve a passing score and still be seriously deficient in a particular subject area.
Nebraska is urged to require all early childhood education teacher candidates who teach elementary grades to pass an appropriate test, either the same test as other elementary teachers or a comparably rigorous one geared to early childhood content. It is especially worrisome that the state allows teachers up through grade 3 to teach without ever having passed a content test.
Ensure that teacher preparation programs deliver a comprehensive program of study in broad liberal arts coursework.
Nebraska should either articulate a specific set of standards or establish more comprehensive coursework requirements that are specifically geared to the areas of knowledge needed by PK-6 teachers. An adequate curriculum is likely to require approximately 36 credit hours in the core subject areas of English, science, social studies and fine arts. Teacher candidates in Nebraska must complete 40 credit hours in "general education courses." This is a sensible amount of coursework to require, but without more guidance regarding the topics these courses should cover, this policy is not nearly specific enough to guarantee that they will be relevant to the topics taught in the PK-6 classroom. Nebraska also requires elementary teacher candidates to complete at least 30 semester hours of coursework in areas that include English/language arts (communication, including literature, composition and speech), science, and social studies/history. A minimum of six semester hours is required in each area. (For math requirements, see Goal 1-D.) The state also requires an unspecified amount of coursework in fine arts, health and wellness, and humanities. These are all sensible requirements, but, again, they could benefit from a greater degree of specificity. The state's current policies offer no guarantee that its elementary teacher candidates will study American history and government, geography or biological science.
Require elementary teacher candidates to complete a content specialization in an academic subject area.
In addition to enhancing content knowledge, this requirement would ensure that prospective teachers in Nebraska take higher-level academic coursework. The requirement also provides an important safeguard in the event that candidates are unable to successfully complete clinical practice requirements. With an academic concentration (or better still a major or minor), candidates who are not ready for the classroom and do not pass student teaching can still be on track to complete a degree.
Nebraska noted that while the analysis correctly states that it requires 40 hours in general education coursework, the state also requires 40 hours in professional education coursework, which includes curriculum, methodology and assessment related to teaching K-8 students in all areas of the elementary curriculum. An additional 30 hours of coursework in the content area is also required.
Nebraska further noted that the Guidelines, which accompany the Rules, provide specific information about the competencies expected of a program completer and specifics content preparation for each endorsement. Although the Guidelines imply that they are "recommended," all institutions are held accountable to these elements through the program approval process. Nebraska asserted that it will continue to do poorly in an NCTQ review if the Guidelines, and the fact that institutions comply with them, are not considered.
Further, Nebraska stated that it continues to disagree with NCTQ's determination that elementary teachers are not prepared to teach a broad elementary curriculum. In addition to the comments above, the state added that general education courses and content courses are taught by arts and sciences faculty in all institutions; however, the state does not specifically dictate utilization of faculty in Rule. General education requirements include required coursework in science, social sciences, English/language arts and mathematics; however, educator preparation guidelines are not explicit about the distribution of these courses in the institution's general education requirements.
To ensure that information regarding expected competencies is applied uniformly and consistently with the state's intent, Nebraska is encouraged to codify the expectations outlined in the Guidelines. Although institutions may comply with the Guidelines, it does not appear that the state would have any recourse if they chose not to.
Elementary teachers need liberal arts coursework that is relevant to the PK through 6 classroom.
The Common Core State Standards, adopted by nearly all states, represent an effort to significantly raise expectations for the knowledge and skills American students will need for college readiness and global competitiveness. However, many states' policies fail to ensure that elementary teacher candidates will have the subject-area knowledge to teach to the Common Core Standards. Even when states specify liberal arts requirements for teacher candidates, the regulatory language can be quite broad, alluding only minimally to conceptual approaches such as "quantitative reasoning" or "historical understanding." Another common but inadequate approach that states take is to specify broad curricular areas like "humanities" or "physical sciences." A humanities course could be a general overview of world literature—an excellent course for a prospective elementary teacher—but it could also be "Introduction to Film Theory." Likewise, a physical science course could be an overview of relevant topics in physics, chemistry and astronomy, or it could focus exclusively on astronomy and fail to give a teacher candidate an understanding of the basic concepts of physics. Too few states' requirements distinguish between the value gained from a survey course in American history, such as "From Colonial Times to the Civil War," and an American history course such as "Woody Guthrie and Folk Narrative in the Great Depression."
In addition to the common-sense notion that teachers ought to know the subjects they teach, research supports the benefits to be gained by teachers being broadly educated. Teachers who are more literate—who possess richer vocabularies—are more likely to be effective. In fact, of all the measurable attributes of a teacher, teacher literacy correlates most consistently with student achievement gains. Some states still require that elementary teacher candidates major in elementary education, with no expectation that they be broadly educated. Others have regulatory language that effectively requires the completion of education coursework instead of liberal arts coursework by mandating only teaching methods courses in subject areas without also requiring content-based coursework in the areas themselves.
Standards-based programs can work when verified by testing.
Many states no longer prescribe specific courses or credit hours as a condition for teacher candidates to qualify for a license. Instead, they require teacher candidates to complete an approved program that meets state-specific standards or standards set forth by accrediting bodies and leave it at that. The advantage of this "standards-based" approach is that it grants greater flexibility to teacher preparation programs regarding program design.
However, a significant disadvantage is that the standards-based approach is far more difficult to monitor or enforce. While some programs respond well to the flexibility, others do not. Standards are important but essentially meaningless absent rigorous tests to ensure that teacher candidates have met them. Most states that have chosen the standards-based approach have not implemented such tests. In their absence, verifying that teacher preparation programs are teaching to the standards requires an exhaustive review process of matching every standard with something taught in a course. This approach is neither practical nor efficient. Tests of broad subject matter are also not the solution or tests that require only a passing composite, given that it is possible to pass without necessarily demonstrating knowledge in each subject area. For instance, on many tests of teacher content knowledge, a passing score is possible while answering every mathematics question incorrectly.
Mere alignment with student learning standards is not sufficient.
Another growing trend in state policy is to require teacher preparation programs to align their instruction with the state's student learning standards, and this is likely to increase with the introduction of the Common Core Standards. In many states, this alignment exercise is the only factor considered in deciding the content to be delivered to elementary teacher candidates. Alignment of teacher preparation with student learning standards is an important step but by no means the only one. For example, a program should prepare teachers in more than just the content that the state expects of its fourth graders. Also critical is moving past alignment and deciding the broader set of knowledge a teacher needs to be able to effectively teach fourth grade. The teacher's perspective must be both broader and deeper than what he or she will actually teach.
An academic concentration enhances content knowledge and ensures that prospective elementary teachers take higher-level academic coursework.
Few states require prospective elementary teachers to major or minor in an academic subject area. Consequently, in most states these teachers can meet subject-matter requirements without taking any advanced-level coursework. At minimum, states should require a concentration in an academic area. In addition to deepening subject-matter knowledge in a particular area, building this concentration into elementary education programs ensures that prospective teachers complete academic coursework on a par with peers earning bachelor's degrees in other areas.
A concentration also provides a fallback for education majors whose programs deem them unready for the classroom. In most education programs, virtually all coursework is completed before candidates begin student teaching. The stakes are high once student teaching begins: if a candidate cannot pass, he or she cannot meet requirements for a major or graduate. This may create a perverse incentive for programs to set low standards for student teaching and/or pass candidates whose clinical experience is unsatisfactory. If they were required to have at least an academic concentration, candidates who failed student teaching could still complete a degree with minimal additional coursework.
Elementary Teacher Preparation: Supporting Research
Numerous research studies have established the strong relationship between teachers' vocabulary (a proxy for being broadly educated) and student achievement. For example: A.J. Wayne and P. Youngs, "Teacher characteristics and student achievement gains: A review," Review of Educational Research, Volume 73, No. 1, Spring 2003, pp. 89-122. See also G.J. Whitehurst, "Scientifically based research on teacher quality: Research on teacher preparation and professional development," presented at the 2002 White House Conference on Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers; R. Ehrenberg and D. Brewer, "Did Teachers' Verbal Ability and Race Matter in the 1960s? Coleman Revisited," Economics of Education Review, Volume 14, No. 1, March 1995, pp. 1-21.
Research also connects individual content knowledge with increased reading comprehension, making the capacity of the teacher to infuse all instruction with content of particular importance for student achievement. See Willingham, D. T., "How knowledge helps: It speeds and strengthens reading comprehension, learning—and thinking," American Educator, Volume 30, No. 1, Spring 2006.
For the importance of teachers' general academic ability, see R. Ferguson, "Paying for Public Education: New Evidence on How and Why Money Matters," Harvard Journal on Legislation Volume 28, Summer 1991, pp. 465-498; L. Hedges, R. Laine and R. Greenwald, "An Exchange: Part I: Does Money Matter? A Meta-Analysis of Studies of the Effects of Differential School Inputs on Student Outcomes," Educational Researcher, Volume 23, No. 3 April 1994, pp. 5-14; E. Hanushek, "Teacher Characteristics and Gains in Student Achievement: Estimation Using Micro Data," The American Economic Review Volume 61, No. 2, May 1971, pp. 280-288; E. Hanushek, "A More Complete Picture of School Resource Policies," Review of Educational Research, Volume 66, Fall 1996, pp. 397-409; H. Levin, "Concepts of Economic Efficiency and Educational Production," in Education as an Industry, eds. J. Froomkin, D. Jamison, and R. Radner, 1976, pp. 149-198; D. Monk, "Subject Area Preparation of Secondary Mathematics and Science Teachers and Student Achievement," Economics of Education Review, Volume 13, No. 2, June 1994, pp. 125-145; R. Murnane, "Understanding the Sources of Teaching Competence: Choices, Skills, and the Limits of Training," Teachers College Record, Volume 84, No. 3, 1983, pp. 564-569; R. Murnane and B. Phillips, Effective Teachers of Inner City Children: Who They Are and What Are They? (Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research, 1978); R. Murnane and B. Phillips, "What Do Effective Teachers of Inner-City Children Have in Common?" Social Science Research Volume 10, No. 1, March 1981, pp. 83-100; M. McLaughlin and D. Marsh, "Staff Development and School Change," Teachers College Record, Volume 80, No. 1,1978, pp. 69-94; R. Strauss and E. Sawyer, "Some New Evidence on Teacher and Student Competencies," Economics of Education Review, Volume 5, No. 1, 1986, pp. 41-48; A. A. Summers and B.L. Wolfe, "Which School Resources Help Learning? Efficiency and Equity in Philadelphia Public Schools," Business Review (Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, February 1975).
Sandra Stotsky has documented the fact that teacher candidates often make inappropriate or irrelevant coursework choices that nonetheless satisfy state requirements. See S. Stotsky with L. Haverty, "Can a State Department of Education Increase Teacher Quality? Lessons Learned in Massachusetts," in Brookings Papers on Education Policy: 2004, ed. Diane Ravitch (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2004).
On the need for colleges and universities to improve their general education coursework requirements, see The Hollow Core: Failure of the General Education Curriculum (Washington, D.C.: American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 2004). For a subject-specific example of institutions' failure to deliver solid liberal arts preparation see, The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education's Failure to Teach America's History and Institutions (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).
For information on teacher licensing tests, see The Academic Quality of Prospective Teachers: The Impact of Admissions and Licensure Testing (Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1999). A study by C. Clotfelter, H. Ladd, and J.Vigdor of elementary teachers in North Carolina also found that teachers with test scores one standard deviation above the mean on the Elementary Education Test as well as a test of content was associated with increased student achievement of 0.011 to 0.015 standard deviations. "How and Why Do Teacher Credentials Matter for Student Achievement?" The Calder Institute (2007).
For information on where states set passing scores on teacher licensing tests across the U.S., see chart on p. 13 of NCTQ "Recommendations for the Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Removing the Roadblocks: How Federal Policy Can Cultivate Effective Teachers," (2011).