State to raise teacher standards

The state is preparing to set tougher standards for its teaching colleges and newest educators, a move that a new national report suggests cannot come fast enough.

The report, released Tuesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality, found a majority of teaching colleges in Georgia and across the country are churning out first-year teachers who lack the needed classroom management skills and subject knowledge.

Nationally, only four — all high school teacher-preparation programs — received the report’s top, four-star rating.

None of those programs were in Georgia, where changes are already in the works.

“We have several very aggressive initiatives underway that we are extremely confident will bring about significant and substantive improvement,” said Kelly Henson, executive secretary of the Professional Standards Commission, the state licensing agency for teachers.

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They include a tougher teacher certification test starting this fall and the development of a series of measures to assess the effectiveness of the state’s teacher-preparation programs. The primary focus will be how effective the teachers are who graduate from the programs, Henson said.

There could be consequences for a school depending on how it fares against those measures, he said.

Another major change will be creating a new, tiered teacher-certification process that includes a new pre-service certification for student teachers, Henson said. Student teachers will not be able to move into full-time regular teaching jobs without a passing score on a number of measures, including a portfolio and lesson plans, he said.

In its report, the National Council on Teacher Quality, working in conjunction with U.S. News & World Report, assigned one- to four-star ratings to more than 1,000 teacher-preparation programs across the country, including more than 30 in Georgia. The best ratings in Georgia were 3.5 or 3 stars, given to four programs, two at the University of Georgia.

NCTQ found that only 15 percent of Georgia schools restrict admission to students who graduated from high school in the top half of their classes. Nationally, 28 percent of schools require students to graduate in the top half of their classes.

The study also found that only 19 percent of the elementary programs it evaluated in Georgia are preparing teacher candidates in “effective, scientifically-based reading instruction,” compared the national average of 29 percent.

Some educators criticized the report, saying it put too much emphasis on what new teachers learned as students and failed to consider what they did once they took charge of a classroom.

“At the end of the day, it’s what teachers do in the classroom that really matters,” said Lynne Weinsenbach, a vice chancellor for the University System of Georgia.

Teacher quality has emerged as a major issue at the national and state levels as repeated studies have shown it is the most important factor determining the quality of a child’s education.

The Obama administration has kept the issue at the forefront, promising money and freedom from some federal education requirements to Georgia and other states willing to evaluate teachers, in large part, on their students’ academic progress.

“Teachers deserve better support and better training than teachers’ colleges today provide,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday.

Kate Walsh, NCTQ president, called the findings “dismal,” though not surprising. “We’re not saying anything that a lot of folks haven’t been saying for decades,” she said.

The findings drew criticism and skepticism from many of the colleges that were rated. Joyce Many, associate dean of undergraduate studies and educator preparation at Georgia State University, said NCTQ didn’t request some pertinent information. For instance, the school’s early childhood education program, which requires 18 hours of math instruction for teachers: “They didn’t ask for that,” Many said.

The council gave GSU 2.5 for its graduate secondary education program and a 1.0 on its undergraduate elementary program. Many said the school will put documents on its website making its case that the analysis is incomplete and flawed and the schools is still one of the top teaching schools.

“I don’t think the study represents the quality of our programs at all,” Many said.

Robert Avossa, superintendent of Fulton County Schools and an adviser on the report, said it is well-timed for his district, which will be hiring about 500 new teachers this summer, many of them recent graduates of college teacher-preparation programs entering a classroom for the first time.

“The first tenet – teacher and principal quality – is one of the most important factors in improving student achievement. We need the best and the brightest teaching and leading our children,” Avossa said.

He said the NCTQ Teacher Prep Review highlights a need for more in-depth classroom management practices in teacher- preparation programs.

“Classroom management is an area which beginning teachers, including those in Fulton County, often cite as their biggest challenge,” Avossa said.

Carlene Millen, principal at A. Philip Randolph Elementary School in Fulton County, has not seen the report. But she said hiring the right teacher with the right “foundation” is one of the most difficult and important jobs she has, and the analysis of schools will help.

“When it’s a first-time teacher the credentials are important, but so is the experience” the school provided, said Millen. She recommends candidates, but the superintendent makes the decision in a district that touts its tough standards. “We keep interviewing until we find the right person,” she said. “The last teaching job we filled had 11 applicants.”

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