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America’s Schools of Education Must Improve

For all the time, money and brainpower spent on improving the academic performance of America’s public school children, some things never seem to change. African-American students consistently lag behind their peers in reading.

Annual measures from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that children from every other race and ethnic group read at higher levels, on average, than Bblack students at every point of assessment: fourth, eighth and twelfth grades. The results have been consistent since the NAEP measures began, in 1992, and I’m sure results wouldn’t have been much different had they started decades earlier.

Since the U.S. Department of Education became a stand-alone agency in 1980, we’ve had six presidents and nine secretaries of education. We’ve had one initiative after another, from National Goals to No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top to Common Core State Standards, and guess what: Too many African-American children still can’t read at grade level. And now, in 2013, the gap is wider than ever.

Can anything be done?

I say yes, but we have to search for solutions where we haven’t spent much time before, in places that can make a real difference in improving the reading skills of all children: America’s schools of education.

Not all children learn the same way, but all children deserve to be taught in such a way that allows them to succeed. Maybe some schools of education understand that, but school districts and principals eager to hire teachers with the skills to teach reading effectively have little way of knowing which schools are producing the best candidates.

Schools of education today operate independently, sending graduates into the workplace without all the skills and knowledge they need to maximize the achievement of all students. Some schools of education train teachers this way; some schools train them that way. There are neither industry standards, best practices nor transparency. That puts an enormous burden on potential employers, and works to the detriment of students in the classroom.

A new study of America’s teacher preparation programs by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) provides urgent new evidence for the need for reform. Among the more sobering findings in the NCTQ Teacher Prep Review is this: 72 percent of reviewed programs are not doing an adequate job training elementary teachers in effective reading instruction.

It is critical that teacher preparation programs train teacher candidates to provide effective instruction first in ‘phonemic awareness’—which is the ability to hear and manipulate small units of sound and which many children struggle to do—and then on to the more commonly known ‘phonics’—the bridge between spoken and written language. They also need to help their students learn to read fluently so they can shift their attention from decoding to understanding the meaning of what they are reading.

Programs need to recognize that these skills must be actively developed, that a child who cannot read well will fall behind in every other subject, including math, science, history and the arts. Once a student falls behind, it is extremely hard to catch up.

The NCTQ Teacher Prep Review serves as the first step in reform. As a consumer tool, it rates teaching programs on a 4-star system, thus serving as a consumer tool for would-be employers of novice teachers. The Review found that only 17 percent of the programs in the country earned four stars, but worse, that there was only one program in New York State—SUNY-Fredonia’s undergraduate program—that did so.

So what happens now? I would encourage the nation’s teacher education programs and school districts to embrace new strategies that would improve the quality of teachers entering the classroom for the first time. NCTQ includes a number of these strategies in their review.

One of these strategies is better licensing tests, including in reading instruction, for candidates to take before they start teaching. There are good reading tests out there, used for example in Massachusetts and Oklahoma, that help to ensure that teachers have acquired essential knowledge before they go into a classroom. New York needs to adopt such a test.

There are other strategies as well that will help us breathe new life into the teaching profession. We need to raise admission standards to attract more qualified teacher candidates. Typically, countries whose students outperform ours recruit teaching candidates from the top third of the population attending school to become a teacher. Yet only one in four programs reviewed in the NCTQ Review even takes steps to draw from the top half of the college-going population.

States need to consider putting a cap on the number of new teachers institutions can prepare so that we address areas of oversupply (elementary teachers) and reduce tuition for teachers in areas of need (science, math, special needs teachers). Teaching institutions should hire trained school superintendents to conduct inspections of teacher education programs through random visits. States should base funding on the quality of the teacher education program.

All these changes would send a strong message to America’s schools of education that all our children deserve the best and the brightest instructors, and we are counting on you to produce them: Train the kind of teachers we need, not the kind you think we need.

James Williams is a former superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools.

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