prep problems

A new study shows why it’s so hard to improve teacher preparation

Dramatically reshaping how teachers are trained — by emulating great teacher preparation programs and shutting down ineffective ones — has been a key priority of many states and even, under the Obama administration, the federal government.

Fierce debates have ensued over how to hold training programs accountable for making sure novice teachers are ready for the classroom on day one.

Now a new study casts doubt on those efforts for a simple reason: It’s hard to identify good or bad teacher preparation programs, at least as measured by student achievement.

That’s the provocative conclusion of research by Paul von Hippel of University of Texas at Austin and Laura Bellows of Duke University.

“It appears that differences between [programs] are rarely detectable, and that if they could be detected they would usually be too small to support effective policy decisions,” write von Hippel and Bellows.

The study, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, follows other peer-reviewed research comparing teacher training programs in Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, New York City, Texas and Washington.

Those studies try to isolate the impact of teacher preparation programs — including schools of education and alternative certification initiatives — on student test scores. It’s a difficult task, since there are two degrees of separation between a teacher training program and students taking state tests, and researchers use complex value-added models to control for a number of factors.

The studies come to differing conclusions. Some suggest that programs vary substantially in effectiveness, but most find few clear differences among a state’s programs.

In the latest research, von Hippel and Bellows reanalyze those six studies using a consistent method. They find that in all states the differences between teacher preparation programs are small and it’s difficult to pick out top-notch programs with confidence.

“This is troubling because singling out [programs] is a prerequisite to the policy goal of expanding strong [programs] and shuttering weak ones,” they write.

Indeed, a number of states — 16, according to the researchers — have made efforts to evaluate training programs based in part on value-added measures. The Obama administration issued regulations encouraging states to evaluate their teacher prep programs by measuring student learning, though they were scrapped by Congress and the Trump administration earlier this year.

Dan Goldhaber, who has studied Washington’s teacher training programs and is a professor at the University of Washington, said this latest study is consistent with his own findings.

“I think there’s relatively little variation in the value-added effectiveness of teachers who hold credentials from different programs,” he said.

Still, he notes, the size of the impact is in the eye of the beholder. At most, the difference between attending a good versus an average training program is comparable to the difference in effectiveness between the average first- and third-year teacher — definitely not big, but not necessarily zero.

An inherent limitation of this research is that it focuses exclusively on the fraction of teachers who end up in tested grades and subjects, largely fourth- through eighth-grade math and English.

It may be more helpful to judge teacher preparation programs by multiple measures. For instance, recent research has found that there is substantial variation in how different programs affect teachers’ scores on classroom observations, which can be used to evaluate all teachers, not just those in tested areas.

Still, isolating the impact of training remains a challenge, since teachers are not randomly assigned to schools, and some programs aim to place teachers in high-poverty schools where attaining high ratings may be more difficult.

Bellows, the Duke researcher, warned against chasing after programs that might be appear effective simply because of a statistical fluke.

“You don’t want to remodel our [teacher preparation programs] based on one that looks really good when … it’s just by chance,” she said.

However, Bellows and von Hippel’s research suggests that there is some reason for optimism. In five of the six states, there was at least one large program that appears significantly better at preparing teachers in at least one subject.

“If we are very careful, we can occasionally identify a [program] that is truly exceptional,” they write.

Top teacher

Franklin educator is Tennessee’s 2018-19 Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: TDOE
Melissa Miller leads her students in a learning game at Franklin Elementary School in Franklin Special School District in Williamson County. Miller is Tennessee's 2018-19 Teacher of the Year.

A first-grade teacher in Franklin is Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year.

Melissa Miller

Melissa Miller, who works at Franklin Elementary School, received the 2018-19 honor for excellence in the classroom Thursday evening during a banquet in Nashville.

A teacher for 19 years, she is National Board Certified, serves as a team leader and mentor at her school, and trains her colleagues on curriculum and technology in Franklin’s city school district in Williamson County, just south of Nashville. She will represent Tennessee in national competition and serve on several working groups with the state education department.

Miller was one of nine finalists statewide for the award, which has been presented to a Tennessee public school teacher most every year since 1960 as a way to promote respect and appreciation for the profession. The finalists were chosen based on scoring from a panel of educators; three regional winners were narrowed down following interviews.

In addition to Miller, who also won in Middle Tennessee, the state recognized Lori Farley, a media specialist at North City Elementary School in Athens City Schools, in East Tennessee. Michael Robinson, a high school social studies teacher at Houston High School in Germantown Municipal School District, was this year’s top teacher in West Tennessee.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen praised the finalists for leading their students to impressive academic gains and growth. She noted that “teachers are the single most important factor in improving students’ achievement.”

Last year’s statewide winner was Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Nashville who has since moved to a middle school in the same Franklin district as Miller.

You can learn more about Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year program here.

PSA

Have you thought about teaching? Colorado teachers union sells the profession in new videos

PHOTO: Colorado Education Association

There are a lot of factors contributing to a shortage of teachers in Colorado and around the nation. One of them — with potentially long-term consequences — is that far fewer people are enrolling in or graduating from teacher preparation programs. A recent poll found that more than half of respondents, citing low pay and lack of respect, would not want their children to become teachers.

Earlier this year, one middle school teacher told Chalkbeat the state should invest in public service announcements to promote the profession.

“We could use some resources in Colorado to highlight how attractive teaching is, for the intangibles,” said Mary Hulac, who teaches English in the Greeley-Evans district. “I tell my students every day, this is the best job.

“You learn every day as a teacher. I’m a language arts teacher. When we talk about themes, and I hear a story through another student’s perspective, it’s always exciting and new.”

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has brought some resources to help get that message out with a series of videos aimed at “up-and-coming professionals deciding on a career.” A spokesman declined to say how much the union was putting into the ad buy.

The theme of the ads is: “Change a life. Change the world.”

“Nowhere but in the education profession can a person have such a profound impact on the lives of students,” association President Amie Baca-Oehlert said in a press release. “We want to show that teaching is a wonderful and noble profession.”

As the union notes, “Opportunities to teach in Colorado are abundant.”

One of the ads features 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year Christina Randle.

“Are you ready to be a positive role model for kids and have a direct impact on the future?” Randle asks.

Another features an education student who was inspired by her own teachers and a 20-year veteran talking about how much she loves her job.

How would you sell the teaching profession to someone considering their career options? Let us know at co.tips@chalkbeat.org.