Joao Rosa, an associate professor at UMass-Dartmouth, leads a teacher-preparation course.
Three Massachusetts universities received poor grades in a national report that's adding fuel to the debate on how to teach America's school kids.
The report, which was issued by the National Council on Teacher Quality, is critical of how colleges and universities nationwide are training the next generation of teachers.
UMass-Dartmouth is one of three schools in Massachusetts for which the Council issued a consumer report alert. It found the state university is using course material for aspiring teachers that “often has little relevance to what they need to succeed in the classroom.”
But spend some time in Dartmouth and you'll find innovations in progress. Inside a conference room on the UMass-Dartmouth campus, 30 new teachers illustrate concepts they’ve been learning this summer with images cut from magazines and pasted on poster boards. Joao Rosa is an associate professor at UMass. He strongly disagrees with the Council’s report.
“I think that there are areas where all programs can be better – they can be tweaked and made better. But I think we are better off listening to our students than listening to some of these studies that are done in a vacuum,” Rosa said.
Many educators in Massachusetts – a state that prides itself on its public schools – agree, pointing out that the report relied primarily on reviewing curriculum and course syllabi rather than direct on-the-ground evidence. UMass-Dartmouth Interim Dean Jen Riley said the review is incomplete.
“Quality teacher education programs will be doing things like portfolio programs, looking at the work of a student over a period of time, not just in one particular class," Riley said. "So you’re looking for that continuous improvement and growth. There are many different variables that come into this that that a fuller analysis I think would give us a bigger picture of what teacher prep programs are doing in the country.”
At a time of across-the-board spending cuts, the debate over the best way to retain students and how to reform schools is heating up. And teacher preparation is at the center of that debate.
The National Council on Teacher Quality found only 24 percent of teacher prep programs in Massachusetts restrict admissions to the top half of college-bound students. That’s compared to 28 percent nationwide.
Kate Walsh is president of the Council and she said teacher prep programs haven’t yet agreed what it means to prepare a teacher well. “These institutions have decided that their job is to create a life-long learner, which absolutely avoids having to teach them the way you would teach a doctor – you’d teach them how to perform really good heart surgery," Walsh said. "You’d teach engineers how to build a bridge. That kind of training is not occurring here. Instead, there’s a lot of reflection, a lot of just plain navel gazing.”
Higher education consultant Bill Massy said he generally agrees with the report’s findings.
“When you go in and put boots on the ground and look at individual departments, you find insufficient effort to seriously figure out what’s relevant to today’s environment,” he said.
So, how did we get here? Massy said America increased its teaching capacity after World War II, boosting funding along with it. And then two things happened:
“First of all, we kind of rested on our laurels. We got huge cadre of faculty doing the thing that they felt in the 1960s, '70s and '80s were the right thing to do," Massy said. "They did not spend enough time investing in the change needed to keep up with current requirements. And then, most recently, the funding has taken a nose dive. And you put those two things together and it’s a perfect storm.”
Teacher prep programs are often caught in the middle of that political storm. So Massy and other higher ed observers want institutions to rethink teaching and learning – to put greater emphasis on cognitive science.
The idea, they say, is to first understand how students learn and then figure out how teachers can best teach them.
In addition to UMass- Dartmouth, Bridgewater State and Lesley University are the other two Massachusetts schools that were criticized in the national report.
Read the National Report on Teacher Quality here.