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National study: College teacher training is 'industry of mediocrity'

| Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 12:36 a.m.

Pennsylvania colleges are doing little to curb America's steady decline from educational powerhouse to middle-of-the-pack contender, according to a study published Tuesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Of 1,200 elementary and secondary teacher training programs evaluated during eight years nationwide, 9 percent made the study's honor roll with at least three out of four stars, including six Pennsylvania colleges and universities. Four earned a “warning” label with less than one star.

In its first “teacher prep review,” the Washington-based group called training programs “an industry of mediocrity, churning out first-year teachers with classroom management skills and content knowledge inadequate to thrive in classrooms with ever-increasing ethnic and socioeconomic student diversity.”

Teachers unions questioned the study's conclusions, but others contended it spotlights the weak standards set for teachers about to enter the classroom.

Robert Strauss, professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, praised the study's overall findings that Pennsylvania teachers aren't prepared but questioned whether students get a return on tuition.

“They make a lot more than other people their age,” Strauss said. “The problem is our standards (for teachers). They're so vague and weak that they don't require teachers to study and absorb the material they're expected to teach.”

The study's authors did not respond to a request seeking further comment. Founded in 2000, the National Council on Teacher Quality characterizes itself as a bipartisan research and advocacy organization that receives funding from a mix of state, national and private donors.

In a news release, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called the study a “gimmick” and chided authors for using a four-star rating system “without using professionally accepted standards, visiting any of the institutions or talking with any of the graduates.”

The study analyzed 16 criteria — including admittance, number of programs, content areas, lesson planning, assessment and data, classroom management, student teaching and more — at 1,130 higher education institutions.

Duquesne University, Robert Morris University, California University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University of Pennsylvania were among those examined. None scored above 2½ stars. California's undergraduate elementary program received a warning label.

More than 1,000 programs were assessed but not granted a rating. Information on the four local universities' specific deficiencies was not immediately available.

“Do I wish our teachers had more training? Absolutely, particularly for work in urban settings,” said Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. “But Pennsylvania schools have also made great strides in teacher prep and Common Core training.”

The study found three out of four elementary teacher prep programs nationwide encourage teacher candidates to develop their “own unique approach” when teaching students how to read, rather than more uniform methods that study authors said would increase long-term literacy rates from 70 percent to 90 percent.

Esposito-Visgitis countered, noting teaching methods often are directed by his or her district.

“With some of these teaching models, you aren't fully prepared until you've been faced with it. You learn as you go; that's true in any field,” she said. “I'd rather have a doctor with 20 years of experience take out my liver than the guy who just graduated from medical school.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or

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