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Patrick R. Riccards's picture
For more than two decades, Patrick has worked at the intersection of education policy, research, and communications. He previously served as chief of staff to the National Reading Panel and as...
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Moving from Easy As to Mastery in Teacher Ed

This week, the National Center on Teaching Quality (NCTQ) released a new report Easy As and What’s Behind Them. In the study the advocacy group moved from our nation’s ongoing discussion of grade inflation at our colleges and universities to a specific look at grade inflation at our teachers’ colleges.

In Easy As, NCTQ’s researchers observed that grade inflation was more prevalent in teachers’ colleges than it was in higher education as a whole, while asking if prospective teachers are graded too easily, are we “misleading them about their readiness to teach?”

The study comes on the heels of the U.S. Department of Education urging states to do a better job of getting exemplary teachers into high-need schools and classrooms. And the NCTQ look comes in advance of long-expected regulations from the Federal government on improvements to teacher preparation programs in general.

Yes, NCTQ raises an interesting question. Are today’s teacher preparation programs – largely found in our colleges and universities – “providing sufficiently rigorous training, or does the approach to training drive higher grades?” In asking the question, though, one has to wonder if we should be looking past what is, and looking toward what should be, in teacher education?

What do I mean? The NCTQ study, and previous work, looks at issues like existing course syllabi and the number of graduates earning distinction (cum laude upward) in graduation programs. The problem with both is that they are largely based on a relic of a bygone era in education – degree by seat time.

We all know what it means. Heck, most of us earned our own degrees this way. We put in 120 hours of course time – be it over four, five, or even six years – and we receive a bachelor’s degree. We put in another 36 or so credit hours, and we pick up the master’s degree (hopefully with a teaching certificate attached, for those in an M.Ed. program).

Despite all we know about education and personalized learning and teaching styles and modes of delivery, we are still providing degrees based on how many hours one can log in a desk in a lecture hall. At too many institutions, teaching degrees are awarded based on “time served,” not on whether one understands and can apply what is taught in the classroom in their own classrooms.

For some, the idea of competency-based education is too new and too obtuse a topic for us to take seriously. After all, how can we award degrees (or even credits) based on mastery? Even simpler, how do we measure mastery in a meaningful way?

Such a concept, though, isn’t so new. When a new student showed up at Oxford University in the 1500s, they were studying in a competency-based model. It was only when higher education saw huge surges in enrolled students that it made the shift from personalized, competency-based education to more of a factory-based, seat-time model.

What does all this mean for teacher education? Quite simply, we need to reconsider how we prepare the next generation of classroom educators. We need to transform our approach. We need to repair or even replace a model that simply isn’t meeting the needs of our schools and our communities, particularly those in high-need areas.

In more concrete terms, we need to move from a system based on seat time and credit hours toward one based on competencies and mastery. Instead of just focusing on the academic preparation found in a higher education classroom, we need to equally emphasize the clinical experience and whether prospective educators can successfully apply the concerns learned in the classes they take while leading classrooms of their own. And it means providing the mentoring and support to make the transition from student to student teacher to teacher of record, gaining ongoing practical, professional learning from those who have come previously.

NCTQ may be right. Colleges of education may be awarding far too many As in their courses and far too many laurels come graduation time. And while we know that an A, be it earned or inflated, does not necessarily mean one will be an excellent teacher. Effective teaching is all about applying what is learned. It is about adjusting instruction –based on everything from class observation to assessment scores – to meet the needs of students. It is about teaching in real time, in real life.

That knowledge and those skills does not come from simply putting in the most time in a lecture hall desk. It comes from clinical experience and real-life classroom interactions. It comes from prospective teachers demonstrating their mastery of pedagogy and content knowledge. That can only really be found in a competency-based approach to higher education.