SEATTLE — The academic progress of public school students can be traced, in part, to where their teachers went to college, according to new research by the University of Washington Center for Education Data & Research.
But the center’s director, Dan Goldhaber, cautioned that the study is just a first step toward determining what kind of training, not where the training occurred, best prepares teachers for excellence in the classroom.
Even so, it’s the kind of information Education Secretary Arne Duncan would like every school to have access to and that’s why he recently announced a new program to use federal dollars to pay for similar research.
Washington state schools are among the first to see which teacher training programs seem to result in the best student test scores, but 35 states now have the means to do similar research, according to the Data Quality Campaign, a national organization formed by education and business groups to track state progress on collecting data about students and schools.
Where teachers are credentialed explains a small part of the variation of teacher effectiveness, Goldhaber said, with the best way to pick out a great teacher still being a visit to the classroom.
Still, the findings of this study, which focused on in-state schools, and a similar report published in Louisiana in early 2010 are meaningful. They both found that the differences between the best and the worst teacher training programs were as significant as differences between teachers at different experience levels or with different class sizes.
“Improving teacher training has the potential to greatly enhance the productivity of the teacher workforce,” Goldhaber wrote in the report.
The study examined which education schools were tied to better student progress, without naming any particular aspect of training that the schools did differently.
Duncan announced his new initiatives earlier this month to identify the best teacher-preparation programs and encourage others to improve by linking student test scores back to teachers and their schools of education. The federal government also plans to give away millions of dollars in scholarships to send students interested in teaching in-demand subjects like science and math to the best teacher training programs.
Carrie Black, a middle school math teacher in Rochester, Wash., says she could have used a lot more time practicing her skills before taking over a classroom on her own and she doesn’t think she could ever have learned enough about how to keep control in class.
Black got her initial training at City University and did graduate work in middle school math at Walden University, an online program not included in the study.
Goldhaber’s study ranked City University, a private school, right in the middle of teacher prep programs, with a score closer to the top schools for math University of Washington, University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran, Seattle Pacific and Western Washington than to the schools at the bottom of the math list: Northwest University, Antioch University, St. Mary’s University, Seattle University and the Evergreen State College.
The ranks are different for reading scores, with Walla Walla University at the top with the University of Washington, which is closely followed by Western Washington University, Seattle Pacific, the University of Puget Sound and Washington State University.
A Bellingham, Wash., English teacher who got his credential from Western had similar issues to Black: too much theory and too little practical advice on how to actually work in the classroom. Todd Hausman said the theories he learned as best practices were completely impractical in the real world, but it took him a few years to figure that out and to have the confidence to abandon those ideas.
Even though their respective schools did well in the study, both Black and Hausman said they would, in retrospect, like to see changes in teacher preparation programs, including more hands-on training.
Hausman thinks student teachers should be immersed in a school for at least a year.
“You learn more in a week at school, than you can learn in an entire academic semester,” he said.
“Classroom management is a hard one to teach,” said Black, a regional Washington teacher of the year last year. “It is like trying to teach someone how to ride a bike by reading instructions. It is different with each class.”
She said classes also don’t prepare teachers for the stress of the job or for the amount of work they’ll do at home each night.
The dean of the top-ranked University of Washington College of Education found the study results interesting but cautioned against giving too much credit to the rankings.
Student test scores should be a part of how teacher education programs are evaluated, Tom Stritikus said, but he feels there should be multiple measures.
“What we’re really after here is changing and improving practice,” Stritikus said. He believes Goldhaber’s study could help put them on the path toward that goal, but the university’s program is also moving toward a much deeper emphasis on gaining practical skills for working in a classroom.
The University of Washington study found that less than 1 percent of the differences between teachers seemed to be linked to where they got their training. But the programs from the best to the worst associated student test scores was roughly equivalent to a reduction in class size of between five and 10 students. So hiring a teacher from the best training program could be equivalent to shrinking a class by five to 10 students.
But he is quick to point out this research does not reveal why one teacher training program is superior to another. Part of the difference could be attributed to how selective a program is in choosing its students.
“I think both are important,” Goldhaber said. It doesn’t matter if the program is selecting better candidates or just turning everyone into really good teachers, he added.
The research also found that programs change and some have improved their teacher outcomes in more recent years.
“That is a hopeful finding,” Goldhaber said. Hopeful because it leads researchers to the next step in their work: to take a closer look at the changes in teacher training over time in order to determine whether they are actually improving teacher effectiveness.