Utah educators are questioning a wide-ranging, scathing new study that called America's teacher-education institutions "an industry of mediocrity," and found an online university to be the state's only school to make the grade.
Western Governors University was one of a handful of institutions to earn three stars from the National Council on Teacher Quality in the controversial report released Tuesday. Though the authors ranked Utah teacher education above average in many areas, especially math-education instruction, the study gave lower grades to the state's public schools and Brigham Young University, the biggest producer of teachers in the state.
They weren't the only ones. Of more than 1,100 programs assessed in the report, just four earned a perfect score of four stars in secondary-education training, and none scored four stars in elementary-education training.
"The results were dismal," said co-author Kate Walsh in a telephone news conference. "If we are serious about the responsibility on us as a globally competitive nation, the first place we need to look is at the quality of math instruction to elementary teachers."
The group contends that teacher preparation is an essential piece of improving the country's school system and says education majors should get more practical rather than theoretical training. That approach seems to align with WGU's methods.
"We really put a considerable amount of time and attention on state and national standards for our teacher education," said Joan Mitchell, the school's director of public relations. "We are constantly looking at the performance of our students once they've been placed."
Walsh decried the lack of more specific standards for teacher education for example, she said there are 866 different reading education textbooks. Students, she said, are encouraged to develop their own teaching methods rather than use those already proven effective a principle that wouldn't fly with, say, heart surgery.
But in teaching, tailoring an approach to individuals can be more effective, said Pam Silberman, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education.
"We don't live in a one-size-fits-all world," she said, pointing out that all the state's education schools are nationally accredited or in the process. "In general, we don't give much credence to this."
The Washington, D.C.-based policy group hasn't been clear on its evaluation methods and exact standards, she said.
"It's sort of a scathing indictment of the entire teacher education system in the U.S.," Silberman said. "To me, that calls into question the agenda of the organization."
Weber School District Superintendent Jeff Stephens, who endorsed the report, said he's happy with the quality of newly minted teachers perhaps because there are so many of them.
"It's not uncommon to have a teaching position and have well over 50 teaching applicants," he said. "We're able to make selections based on sheer numbers that allow us to really pick the cream of the crop."
Those numbers, which he attributed to the recession, could be masking problems in teacher-preparation programs. Those issues could come to the surface when the economy fully recovers and bright students eschew teaching for more lucrative professions.
The report was produced using teaching materials such as syllabuses, textbooks and student teaching handbooks rather than visits or interviews. Their standards were developed by studying teacher preparation in other countries, consulting with public schools and common core standards, among others.
But BYU officials said evaluating programs by course materials rather than how students do after graduation is outdated. The report gave the school's elementary prep one star and secondary prep two stars.
"The teacher-preparation field has moved away from inputs toward an outcomes-based evaluation or performance review," Richard Young, dean of BYU's McKay School of Education, said in a statement. "Our main concern is whether our students teach effectively. … We believe there are more current and appropriate evaluation processes in place."
The University of Utah earned two and a half stars for elementary-school instruction and two for secondary-school preparation. But Mary Burbank, director of the U.'s Urban Institute for Teacher Education, took issue with their zero-star rating for student teaching.
"Our students spend 400 hours in schools," she said. "To say that piece is missing, I think would be inaccurate."
Walsh conceded that the report is "not a very deep look at the quality of each program," and "we're going to make mistakes," but the point is to start a conversation.
"We're not pretending to have all the answers, but we think we certainly have some very legitimate questions," she said, adding that she hopes students "press their departments to really do some soul searching."
By publishing the results with US News & World Report, the authors are aiming at a market-driven approach.
"We don't think policy solutions have been effective in the past. We do think the power behind what we are doing is with the consumer," Walsh said. "We know that institutions respond very well to ratings and change their behavior."