ORLANDO -- Lee-Anne Spalding’s Elementary School Social Studies class at the University of Central Florida had spread out over the room in small groups. One group of sophomores huddled over a set of poetry books, picking out ones they liked. Others gathered around the white board as Spalding demonstrated how to embed sounds in presentations. Spalding had cut into strips a timeline of the civil rights movement and a third group, sitting on the floor, was putting the events back into chronological order.
In part, Spalding was providing content to her students by introducing them to materials they might use – like National Geographic magazines and the poetry books. But she was also modeling teaching strategies, like small group learning, and introducing activities, like the timeline exercise, that she hoped her students would someday mimic.
“You are more likely to use the instructional strategies I’m proposing to you if you actually do it,” she told her students.
UCF is the largest producers of teachers in the state; the university’s education school enrolls more than 2,000 students. It prides itself on being one of the strongest teacher training program in Florida, a position it has gained, school officials say, by nimbly responding to changes in the profession.
There is no real way to test that claim. The university, like many education schools across the country, must rely on anecdotal evidence from principals and graduates to determine that its programs are working, rather than hard data showing students are performing better.
Nationally, education schools have been criticized for being too easy - taking in some of the lowest-performing students - and pumping ill-equipped teachers into the system, harming student achievement. Schools across the country are trying to mitigate the criticism by changing curriculum or increasing the amount of field experience.
Florida and several other states are creating accountability systems so education schools will develop quantitative ways to measure their programs’ success. But for now, teacher preparation remains oversaturated with options - undergraduate degrees, master’s programs, in-school residencies and online courses - that provide little evidence of their effectiveness. And as thousands of Florida’s baby boomer teachers prepare to retire, there is little consensus about how to best train the next generation.
“I don’t know of any other profession that has this kind of uncertainty about the kind of preparation needed,” said Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program, which provides an alternative pathway to teaching for career switchers.
The bulk of teachers are still trained in traditional undergraduate colleges of education, which have borne the majority of criticisms. In particular, Levine and others have argued, the schools are not rigorous enough and don’t focus enough on the subject matter content—like geometry concepts or Shakespeare—that teachers need to know in order to pass on the knowledge to their students.
The very idea of an “education degree” may be an antiquated concept, says Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. He argues that there is little evidence to show that traditional programs’ focus on pedagogy—including classes on child development and how students learn—helps new teachers succeed in the classroom.
“Maybe we should ask some deeper more existential questions about the value of teacher education as it is constructed,” he said.
One study, by Cory Koedel of the University of Missouri, found that undergraduate education schools tend to give higher grades to students than other departments, a finding supported by data that The Hechinger Report collected from UCF.
Of UCF’s 65 departments, just six, including three small programs run through the dean’s office and the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, a graduate video game design program, gave out a higher percentage of As in their classes than the School of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership. The data shows that 73 percent of grades awarded in these teacher training courses from fall 2011 to summer 2012 were A’s or A-minuses, compared to 34 percent in electrical engineering and 40 percent in food services and lodging management.
“Students are graded individually based on their mastery of professional knowledge and skills; there’s no grading on a curve,” UCF spokesperson Courtney Gilmartin said in an email. “If faculty members do their job well … every future teacher demonstrates their competencies to the highest level and graduates with the knowledge and skills required to become a highly effective classroom teacher.”
Many education schools across the country similarly argue that grades are a positive reflection of those enrolled in an education school, not a condemnation of them. A good grade doesn’t mean it wasn’t earned, said Mike Rosen, an education student at Daytona State College. “The assignments are not easy,” he said, noting that some keep him up until the early hours of the morning. “But every single one of them is necessary.”
Arthur McKee, managing director of teacher preparation studies at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit advocacy group that has been one of the most vocal critics of teacher preparation programs, says he doesn’t believe that the high GPAs of education students can be explained by excellent professors or dedicated students.
“We think it’s much more possible that the teacher preparation programs are just not holding the candidates themselves to a high enough standard,” he said.
NCTQ has pushed for aggressive education reforms across the country and have targeted teacher preparation programs as institutions in need of drastic changes. This summer, in partnership with U.S. News and World Report, the group plans to release a highly controversial set of ratings for teacher training programs based on the syllabuses of classes offered at schools of education. Critics of the group’s methodology say the focus on coursework won’t solve the problem of figuring out which schools are producing the best teachers and which aren’t.
Sandy Robinson, dean of UCF’s education program, noted that grades are not the only factor in determining if a student graduates. Students must also spend 800 hours in a classroom. Regardless of their grades, they may be counseled out of the education program if they don’t perform well during their internships or student teaching. “That’s an important part of the responsibility we have,” Robinson said.
Many education school critics say in-classroom experience should be an essential if not the main focus. Florida requires 10 weeks of full-time student teaching in order to complete a traditional education program. Teacher candidates must also “demonstrate they can make a positive impact on student learning,” said Kathy Hebda, a deputy chancellor at the Florida Department of Education.
But the law does not specify how that impact is measured.
Many groups are becoming increasingly concerned about whether it’s possible for programs to demonstrate such impacts from their graduates. Policymakers, including officials in Florida, have turned to student test scores as a means of evidence. But for now, test scores only capture a small fraction of the teachers trained in education schools – although Florida is moving toward end-of-course assessments for all grade levels and subject areas. There are also concerns about the reliability of using standardized tests as a gauge of teacher effectiveness.
Even so, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation has released a set of contentious new standards, under which programs would have to prove that their graduates were able to raise student test scores. The U.S. Department of Education is working on new requirements for teacher preparation programs to increase accountability based in part on “student learning outcomes.”
In 2009, Florida began releasing rankings of education schools based on what percentage of a teacher’s students passed the state standardized tests. The state, which promised to improve education school accountability in its Race to the Top grant, has since stopped publishing the results in anticipation of the state’s new teacher evaluation process, which will use student test scores in its teacher ratings. Instead Florida is developing a new rating system for education schools that covers six areas, including student achievement, graduate employment and retention.
The new system won’t differ much from how the state currently oversees teacher preparation. As is now the case, programs that are denied state approval under the new ratings will be given time to improve. But even if they fail to do so, programs will not be shut down. The only consequence will be that the transcripts of the program’s graduates cannot say they completed a state-approved program.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University, in partnership with StateImpact Florida.