Teacher Incompetence or Lack of Adequate Training?

The research is mixed. Some reviews (of the many studies on retention or promotion) have shown little benefit for retention in grade 3 compared with social promotion to grade 4.  For example, a 2017 review looked at the results of Florida’s “A+ plan,” begun by Jeb Bush when he was governor. Little benefit has been found for the retained students.

Other reviews have shown that retention in the primary grades correlated with dropping out in high school. Nevertheless, some students who don’t pass a grade 3 reading test (for promotion to grade 4) do go on to grade 4 after submitting a portfolio, taking an alternative assessment, and/or attending a special summer school session and thereby qualifying for promotion to grade 4, even though they still may not do grade 4 work adequately.  The quality of the work these low achievers do may depend on whether upper elementary teachers can group them for skills work in their self-contained classrooms.  School or state policies may forbid grouping practices in the teaching of reading, especially in elementary school.

Unfortunately, neither promotion nor retention has solved the problem of low reading achievement, it seems.  Earlier intervention than grade 3 is now often recommended. For example, see a 2008 review. However, it is not clear if earlier intervention has helped poor readers in grades K, 1, and 2 to pass a high-stakes grade 3 reading test or graduate from high school at a more frequent rate compared with a similar group of poor readers without early intervention or help in school. For example, see this recent review. As we all know, there are many low achievers in elementary reading classes to this day.

Indeed, because of a growing number of state laws requiring retention (probably in desperation), many third graders in this country’s schools today will not be promoted to fourth grade.  For example, we are told that thousands may be held back in Mississippi. That newspaper article from Mississippi refrains from pointing a finger at anyone—the students or their teachers or parents.  However, many education policymakers seem to fault, implicitly at least, elementary classroom teachers for the failure of many kids to learn how to read by grade 3.

So-called “retention” studies also seem to assume teachers or school policy makers are to blame when researchers find few long-term differences between low-achieving third graders who repeated grade 3 and similar low-achieving third graders who were promoted to grade 4. Researchers as well as journalists, nevertheless, are reluctant to criticize struggling students or their teachers.  

But when a large group of kids in a state have not learned beginning reading skills by the end of grade 3 (remember, they’ve been in school for at least 4 years), it is fair to ask if the problem may lie with their teachers’ training programs, not their teachers. Few parents or other readers would guess that teachers’ training programs may be the source of the problem because the studies on retention in grade 3 rarely provide information about the beginning reading program these students have had or the preparation program their teachers had.   Their focus is on students’ achievement in school after grade 3.

Why are large numbers of students who don’t pass a grade 3 test of beginning reading apt to be an indictment of a state’s preparation programs for primary grade teachers?  Because, as I learned in Massachusetts, most elementary teachers have not been trained to use effective, research-based strategies.  How do we know this?  I learned this by examining licensure tests for prospective teachers of young children before helping to develop one in the Bay State. Most licensure tests of beginning reading knowledge for prospective teachers of young children, I discovered, do not assess or assess adequately the major elements of research-based knowledge of beginning reading as set forth in the National Reading Panel’s report of 2000

The components of effective beginning reading programs and strategies one would expect researchers to look for, or professional development providers to provide, are well-known and listed here. But, alas, they are not apt to be found in many primary classrooms.  Teachers teach the way that they are taught to teach in their training programs.

Since around the 1960s, teacher training programs in the U.S. have tended to promote guessing from context (often called Whole Language) as the primary strategy.  Even if some decoding is taught (as in many misnamed “Balanced Literacy” programs), kids are not taught the purpose for an alphabet. Nor are they taught systematically how to decode the alphabetic symbols used for beginning reading in English (the symbols for the sounds made in words read by children in the short stories created for beginning readers). Yet, somehow, teacher preparation programs have escaped the (often implicit) fault-finding that their own students—prospective teachers—have not.  For reasons that are not clear yet, low achievement in K-12 students is perceived by education policy makers, researchers, and many others as the fault of their teachers.  At least, that is who the framers of the Race to the Top grant competition in 2011 decided should be held accountable for low K-12 student scores on federal or state-mandated achievement tests.  Indeed, sometimes as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on her students’ test scores.   

Strangely, while K-12 teachers, under current education policies, are held accountable to varying degrees for the low scores of their K-12 students, faculty in teacher preparation programs are NOT held accountable for the failure of their own students (the prospective teachers they recruited and prepared) to teach K-12 reading well enough so that the racial and ethnic “gaps” between low-achieving K-12 students’ average reading scores and the average reading scores of higher-achieving K-12  students have narrowed.  What is worse, many education policy makers seem to believe today that the chief reason low-achieving readers are low-achieving is because their teachers, principals, or communities are bigoted and have discriminated against them.  

One might think that the requirement to pass a well-constructed licensure test in beginning reading skills for all prospective teachers of young children would ensure that all young children in our schools have adequately trained teachers.  But only a few states (Massachusetts, Arkansas, Connecticut, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin) today seem to use a well-constructed licensure test of beginning reading skills for prospective special education, early childhood, and/or elementary teachers, as I showed in my own research on the content of licensure tests for special education teachers.

Moreover, it turns out that in some states there are differences in pass rates for “white” and black prospective teachers on their required licensure tests in reading, leading some policymakers and researchers to imply that racial or ethnic differences in pass rates for prospective teachers also means discriminatory tests (licensure tests).

For example, in Wisconsin: “According to Department of Public Instruction (DPI) records, two-thirds of people who took the Foundations of Reading Test (FoRT) between 2013 and 2016 [a test developed in the Bay State in 2000] passed on the first try. Including those who took it two or more times, 85% passed. Pass rates were better for white test-takers than for minority test-takers, which led to concerns that the test keeps a disproportionate number of minority potential-teachers out of classrooms. Department of Public Instruction officials say many who have not passed FoRT would be good teachers and passing FoRT isn’t the only sign someone will be a good teacher.”

A major part of the problem with the thinking expressed by education policy makers at the Wisconsin DPI is the idea that raw scores on licensure tests predict teacher effectiveness. They weren’t intended to do so at the inception of teacher licensing, and still are not.  Passing a licensure test in most if not all professions means only that the test-taker has adequate entry-level knowledge for the profession.  It is assumed that those who don’t pass the test don’t get a license.  While adequate entry-level subject knowledge is needed for effectiveness in any profession and is necessary.  But it is not sufficient.  For prospective teachers of young children, student teaching experiences are expected to indicate to supervising personnel whether the test-taker is apt to become an effective teacher.  In other words, NOT passing a well-constructed licensure test of beginning reading skills is a sign that the test-taker is UNLIKELY to become a good or effective teacher of beginning reading. 

It is therefore not surprising that thousands of children across the country fail a reading test at the end of grade 3 when the basic problem may well be that they have not been taught how to read by their teacher because she has not been trained in her preparation program to use research-based knowledge of beginning reading, or tested for this knowledge on her licensure tests. This may well be the case in Florida today despite almost two decades of the A+ Plan.

Why Common Core’s Standards Weaken Teacher/Administrator Training

As intended, Common Core’s standards shape tests determining “college and career readiness.” But, unfortunately, they affect the preparation of teachers and administrators as well. How they do so is not well understood by most parents. 

The standards adopted by the Council for Accreditation of Education Professionals (CAEP) require all preparation programs for teachers and school administrators seeking re-accreditation to address “rigorous college- and career-ready standards” and explicitly mention Common Core’s standards as an example. But they don’t require preparation programs to address all the traditional discipline-based content that parents may well assume these standards address.

In CAEP 2013 Standards for Accreditation of Educator Preparation, approved by CAEP’s Board of Directors on August 29, 2013, we find under “Standard 1: Content and Pedagogical Knowledge” the following standard as a “provider” responsibility: 

1.4 Providers ensure that completers demonstrate skills and commitment that afford all P‐12 students access to rigorous college‐ and career‐ready standards (e.g., Next Generation Science Standards, National Career Readiness Certificate, Common Core State Standards).

Exactly how teachers can give students “access” to rigorous standards is not explained in the glossary for this Standard. In addition, there are two basic problems with the wording in substandard 1.4.  

First, the word “rigorous” begs the question that is arousing parents across the country: Are “college- and career-ready standards” (which everyone today knows as a synonym for Common Core’s standards) rigorous?  It has becoming increasingly clear to watchful parents that Common Core-based lessons are not academically rigorous. 

Why did CAEP decide that Common Core’s standards were rigorous?  What experts on high school mathematics, science, and literary content helped the education school deans on CAEP’s Board of Directors to arrive at that decision? Even Common Core’s own mathematics standards writers have acknowledged that they do not prepare students for STEM majors or careers. By intention, Common Core’s level of college readiness in mathematics is low.

Moreover, in requiring prospective teachers (“completers”) to demonstrate their “commitment” to give all students “access” to “rigorous” standards, the examples given do not lead knowledgeable observers to place much confidence in the outcomes.  The examples include Next Generation Science Standards which were released in 2013 and have been heavily criticized by scientists for having few high school chemistry standards and unteachable physics standards because the mathematics to support high school physics coursework is not clearly specified nor integrated with the physics standards. 

Why should an accreditation agency promote particular sets of standards (even if as examples) rather than expect prospective teachers and administrators to learn how to teach discipline-based content?  Accrediting personnel will rely on those examples of standards, especially if they have been told they are rigorous, leaving prospective teachers and administrators underqualified for work in private schools or homeschooling cooperatives that may still want educators who can establish and teach to authentically rigorous standards. 

CAEP may well be handicapping the preparation programs it has accredited.  While private schools as well as some charter schools are exempt from hiring state-licensed teachers and administrators, a new accreditation agency is needed that does not impose the use of weak or academically-limited K-12 standards on all educator training programs.

Elementary Math Licensure Test: A Tale of Two States

The Massachusetts Story

The Massachusetts Board of Education was the first state board to decide that elementary teachers should be expected to know the math they teach in grades 4-6.  The teaching license for these teachers covers grades 1 to 6. So, that meant, to the Board, that prospective elementary teachers should be tested on one of their licensure tests for their knowledge of mathematics in grades 1-6.  Not how to teach math in those grades, something they should learn in their math methods classes and something they should practice in their student teaching while being supervised by their “cooperating” teacher and their math methods instructor in their teacher preparation program.  But the same deep understanding of the math they are expected to teach their elementary students in grades 1-6.

In December 2006, the Massachusetts Board of Education approved the development of a 40-item stand-alone licensure test for prospective elementary and elementary special education teachers.  The test is based on the reasonable principle that these teachers-to-be should be expected to demonstrate without the use of a calculator a deep understanding of the same mathematical concepts underpinning what they teach their students, also without the use of calculators.

The test went into effect in 2009. The startlingly low pass rate on the first test administration was a shocker.  The Massachusetts Board of Education was faced with approving a cut score for a new elementary mathematics licensure test that meant that only 27% of the test-takers would pass. The official minutes of the May 19, 2009 meeting containing the paragraph below don’t capture the tension (or the exact words spoken) at this point in the meeting.  The heart of the discussion was about the effect on diversity of a recommended pass score that meant getting only 60% of the items correct on a 40-item test of elementary mathematics. How could the Board ensure that diversity meant academic quality in its teaching force? 

The test had been developed and vetted by the state’s own mathematics educators and mathematicians. The state’s mathematics organizations were all in favor of the test as well as the recommended cut-off score. At least, no one in these organizations testified against the test or recommended cut-off score. But one Board member tried to raise an argument against them.

Vice Chair Chernow said her concern is that teacher licensing is already overly complex and bureaucratic, and additional tests complicate it further. She said that 46 states use the Praxis test and asked whether using a different test [the new test] impedes reciprocity and teacher mobility. Dr. Howard said he appreciated the expressions of concern about the diversity of the teaching pool, but standards should be set based on what students require from their teachers. Dr. Stotsky said the Praxis test [for elementary teachers] is weak on mathematics (pp. 6-7).

Dr. Howard, whose undergraduate and graduate degrees were both from Harvard University, said something in my recollection of the discussion closer to: “Quality comes first.  Then look for diversity.” (I attended this meeting in my position as a state school board member.)

He is an African American, and there was no further discussion of this issue by the Board. The recommended cut score and test were approved unanimously. About 50 percent of the test-takers across test administrations on average have passed the test since the Board’s decision. No information is available on race or ethnicity (pp. 66-67).

In sum, the pass rate has hovered around 50 percent on average over test administrations, suggesting how needed such a test was (only 60 percent of the items need to be correct for a passing score).  The only overt opposition to the board’s vote of approval for this pass score (in 2009) was from the state affiliate of the National Education Association. State affiliates of a variety of mathematics organizations approved it, and the one minority member of the board (at the time) indicated that academic quality came first, diversity second, in response to concerns expressed by two white board members about the minority pass rate.  There is no information available on what happens to test-takers who never pass the mathematics portion of the test, no matter how many times they take it. (They can get their college degree but not a teaching license.)  The numbers who fail this test are very high. The numbers who fail this test when they re-take it are also very high.  

To address the competition from the Bay State, ETS also developed a separately-scorable mathematics test for prospective elementary teachers (also with 40 test items), available in 2011.    Pass rates are not easily comparable across states since states set their own pass score on a PRAXIS test.  

The 40-item Massachusetts test of elementary mathematics knowledge in its General Curriculum test (03) and the 40-item PRAXIS test of elementary mathematics knowledge in its Multiple Subjects test (5031) are the only two stand-alone elementary mathematics tests available.  But we do not know how strong the PRAXIS test is. The ETS website provides no information on how strong the test is or who developed the guidelines for test items on mathematics. In contrast, the mathematicians and others who developed the Massachusetts test are identified in Guidelines for the Mathematical Preparation of Elementary Teachers. These 2007 Guidelines also indicate what topics should be taught in mathematics coursework for prospective elementary teachers (pp. 67-68). The Guidelines strongly suggest that teacher preparation programs in Massachusetts should require all prospective elementary teachers to take 2-3 elementary math courses (not math ed courses).  Information on how many do is not available.

On to North Carolina

The story does not end here.  It continues in North Carolina.  The argument over this test in North Carolina, as noted in a local newspaper article, concerns, first, the number of prospective elementary teachers who have failed the test since its inception in 2013. That number is still unclear. However, the gist of that article (and subsequent articles on the topic) was that the problem was likely the test. To understand why the test was likely not the problem and that the root of the problem was more likely test-takers’ lack of preparation for the test, it is necessary for policy makers on the North Carolina Board of Education to know something about the test itself.

Clearly, there is good reason to think that any group of prospective teachers would have already obtained a strong understanding of pre-algebra mathematics.  After all, whether in Massachusetts or North Carolina, they had completed elementary, middle, and high school themselves—years earlier—and had been required to study mathematics at most grade levels. 

In 2012, upon recommendation from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the North Carolina state board of education voted to adopt the Massachusetts test. The North Carolina superintendent of public instruction at the time likely helped to set the pass score (cut-off score) for the state. It may or may not be identical to the pass score in the Bay State; we don’t know. The testing company provided a practice test similar to the 100-item practice test it provided in the Bay State to suggest how difficult the actual test may be.  

We also do not know if all teacher preparation programs in North Carolina require prospective elementary teachers to use it or take the recommended elementary mathematics coursework described in the Guidelines for the Mathematical Preparation of Elementary Teachers developed in the Bay State to help teacher preparation programs. These guidelines also indicate what topics should be taught in mathematics coursework for prospective elementary teachers, preferably by people with advanced degrees in mathematics. How this conflict will play out remains to be seen. But the animus against licensure tests for teachers seems to be growing, as a 2017 article about Florida suggests

The basic question about licensure tests for teachers has yet to be discussed publicly. Are such tests to have relatively low cut-off scores (i.e., high passing rates) to protect the putative right of any adult who wishes to be a teacher, or are they to have high enough cut-off scores to protect students from academically incompetent teachers?  (Or are states to have no teacher licensure tests at all and implicitly facilitate nepotism or racial quotas in school hiring practices?)  The authors of the 1966 Coleman report on teacher quality and its influence on academic achievement implicitly suggested that schools need to protect minority students from academically inadequate teachers.

Why did most legislation (in re-authorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or ESEA) and in most grant programs talk about “failing” or “low-performing” schools and do little if anything to strengthen academically our teaching corps?  Perhaps it has been easier to claim that teachers were not teaching some students as well as they should because teachers were bigoted and held low expectations for some students.  It was certainly unclear how general undergraduate academic demands could be strengthened for teachers at a time when political leaders claimed they wanted to see more college graduates, not fewer. The higher the bar, the fewer will likely pass it.  But we should find out if the bar is being lowered while at the same time the claim is that it is being raised. All students, including minority students, need academically stronger teachers, whether in North Carolina or Massachusetts.

Michael Bloomberg Discusses College and Career Readiness

Michael Bloomberg pushes career and college readiness in an op/ed in Bloomberg:

He establishes the problem:

One side thinks that every student should get an acceptance letter from a four-year college. The other argues that college is overrated and that we should focus on preparing young people for well-paid careers that don’t require a four-year education. The truth is that this isn’t an either/or situation. We need to do both: put more focus on college and careers, so students have a real choice…

…But whether or not they graduate, we haven’t given them the skills and training they need to begin a career, and they pay for that for the rest of their lives, in limited opportunities and lost earnings….

…..So on the one hand, we aren’t preparing high-school graduates for success in college, and on the other, we effectively treat non-college-bound students as second-class citizens, giving them no preparation for their next steps in life.

Isn’t this what Common Core which has been around eight years now supposed to remedy? Wasn’t this one of the talking points? Common Core has done neither. The whole workforce development model of education continues to fail.

All students regardless of whether they attend college or not deserve a well-rounded classical education, and until schools start to provide that we’ll continue to see kids not prepared for college or careers.

Bloomberg then does his best Bill Gates’ impression:

Let’s start with what it takes to prepare students for the choice between college or a career: improving achievement in the early grades.

By now, there is plenty of evidence for what works. Raise standards for students; raise salaries for teachers in exchange for greater accountability; give principals the freedom to hire, manage, and train school staff; ensure that every classroom is led by a skilled and effective teacher; ensure that teachers who fail, even after getting mentoring and professional development, can be moved out of the classroom; and give students and parents more quality school options, including charters.

He throws out a number of things here. Some have evidence, others not so much. Great teachers help to raise student achievement. I don’t think there is any denying that. What do great teachers look like? How do we best prepare them? Bloomberg and others talk about good teachers, but they don’t define that.

That isn’t where the focus of reform efforts have been. Instead, it has been on standards, assessments, and data mining. Education reformers keep beating the broken standards and accountability drum.

Common Core Dollars Spent to Retrain Teachers, But States Still Can’t Identify Failing Teachers

Billions of tax dollars have been spent over decades to prepare teachers but have produced little evidence of success. States complain that they can’t identify ineffective teachers. It is time to wake up and smell the burning toast!

The significance of subjecting teachers to failed teacher-training programs is lost on those who influence education. Billions of dollars from the federal Common Core Standards, Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation, and other sources will be spent to prepare quality teachers; but those programs will use recommendations from the same educational theorists who created those “failing” teachers in the first place. It is time to stop spending good money on failed policies. Let’s face some truths.

Research and logic indicate that great teachers know their subject well and can simplify complex concepts so children can understand. To achieve this level of skill, each teacher must master the subject he will teach and be prepared to employ whichever teaching method would be most appropriate and effective for a given situation. Teachers fail when the educational system neglects to provide that teacher with the basic knowledge needed to become an expert in a subject.

Grammar and syntax should be introduced early. Even a five year old child can recognize the difference between a noun and a verb; but few adults today have a clear understanding of grammar and syntax or precise writing. English teachers need to master that knowledge to be effective. Accurate comprehension skills are based on people’s ability to recognize the relationship between basic parts of a sentence and their modifiers. 

Math has been the one subject without a language barrier. Discovered thousands of years ago, most efficient mathematical processes allow any person from any country to “talk math” with a person from any other country. As a result, civilizations advanced and evolved with amazing speed. Today, teachers and parents must learn new terminology to help children learn math. No longer can Americans think or communicate using a universal mathematical language.

Few Americans recognize the relationship of math patterns to scientific discoveries, music, or art. They fail to see math as the most amazing puzzle ever created. Federally created programs have allowed citizens to become mathematically illiterate.

The failed Modern Math of the 1960s is similar to the math standards and curricula provided under Common Core Standards. These two programs encourage children to discover the answer to a math problem on their own, and they require teachers to accept incorrect creative answers over factually correct answers.

Basic math formulas simplify math; they help explain the relationships between patterns, and they create a universal language. Too many America children and teachers have been robbed of this basic understanding of math. Teachers are being labeled as failures when it is their K-12 and college training programs that have failed them.

Teachers are beginning to revolt against being held accountable for failed policies. They have been made invisible, and their involvement has not been sought while policies are being created that will impact their success and that of their students.

Every teaching method available to teachers today was available at the time of Plato and Socrates. There are no new teaching methods. Some technologies have made the implementation of those methods more effective, and current teacher-training programs do a relatively good job of preparing teachers to implement teaching methods. The problem occurs when federally aligned curricula requires teachers to use teaching methods which are not appropriate for a specific group of students or for a specific concept that is being taught.

Teachers who object to federal interventions that limit their ability to help students succeed are often threatened with suspension for insubordination.

Teachers need the right to choose the teaching method most appropriate for any given class and for any specific concept. A teacher who chooses a teaching method that fails students is responsible for that failure. When teachers are forced to use methods that are not best for their students, holding the teacher accountable is not fair. That concept belongs in every new teacher- preparation program!

If teachers were required to know their subject, lack of knowledge could be easily identified. If teachers were required to convey that knowledge effectively to students, a five-point quiz could determine a teacher’s effectiveness. Yet, state leaders are complaining that after spending billions on teacher training, they can’t identify ineffective teachers.

Perhaps the teacher is NOT the problem. Teacher-preparation programs convince teachers to implement federal programs that are morally or intellectually offensive to them. For example:  Common Core math standards for grade four require nine-year old children to “critique the reasoning of others.” Teachers would be reluctant to require children to critique the reasoning of classmates or to allow a child to feel bullied.

One reason teacher-training programs fail is that educational leaders spend hours convincing teachers that making children “construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others” is educationally sound, morally and ethically necessary. Teachers are told that if this process fails the students, the teacher has failed. Teachers are then reminded that their evaluations will be based upon how well they implement this standard. I sat through many in-service and professional development days where this is exactly what happened.

Citizens, when your state labels teachers as failures and wants more of your dollars to fund the same old teacher-training programs, refuse to fund any program that fails to improve the teacher’s knowledge of the subject(s) he teaches. Remind your state legislators that Georgia recently spent more than $1 BILLION dollars annually on teacher-improvement efforts with “little evidence of success.” The reason given was that the state “hasn’t figured out a way to identify and remov
e ineffective teachers.” Citizens must stop this misuse of funds. We must withhold support for failed federal policies and insist that educational experts be responsible for the failures they have created.