Teacher prep programs are failing to pay attention to the content knowledge teacher candidates need, and an astonishingly high number of elementary teacher candidates fail professional licensing tests teach year, according to a new report.

A new analysis from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) reveals that few teacher preparation programs either conduct any sort of screening or require specific coursework in the subject area knowledge traditionally taught in elementary grades.

The fact that more candidates fail their professional exams on their first attempt (54 percent) than pass them suggests a lack of adequate preparation and lies in stark comparison to other professions–nursing, for example, achieves an 85 percent first-time pass rate, according to the report.

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Teacher candidates who do not pass these tests, even though they have finished their program of study, are generally denied a standard license to teach by their state.

The report examined the undergraduate course requirements for teacher prep programs at each of 817 institutions, including both the general education coursework required of all students at an institution and the coursework required by the education program:

  • A tiny percentage of teacher prep programs (3 percent) require courses to ensure candidates gain foundational knowledge across science topics. For example, instead of directing teacher candidates to a basic chemistry course (or first requiring evidence of the candidate’s knowledge of chemistry), candidates often have a choice of courses, such as how chemistry is used in art restoration or herbal medicines. Further, while some courses appear to be suitable, they are often too narrow in scope (e.g. “Lightning and Thunderstorms”) to benefit a teacher who lacks a broad knowledge of science.
  • Only a quarter of teacher prep programs (27 percent) require sufficient coursework in mathematics.
  • History, geography, and literature courses aligned with elementary standards are similarly absent from course requirements. For example, only half of all teacher prep programs even require an adequate course in children’s literature, in spite of the fundamental role it plays in all elementary curricula.

“Of all the different strategies to try and attract more individuals of color to the teaching profession, here we surface thousands of candidates a year who want to teach, who would teach, but whose institutions are not providing what they need to be successful. Few challenges faced by the teaching profession can be solved as easily as this one–just guide them to the right coursework,” says Kate Walsh, NCTQ’s president.

Candidates of color are hit hardest. Already more likely to be disadvantaged by an inequitable system of K-12 education, only 38 percent of black teacher candidates and 57 percent of Hispanic teacher candidates pass the most widely used licensing test even after multiple attempts, compared to 75 percent of white candidates, the report notes. If the pass rate for black and Hispanic teacher candidates were comparable to white candidates, the diversity of the new teaching pool would increase by half.

Low pass rates on the elementary content licensing exam have in many states sparked a backlash against the tests themselves, with calls to discard licensing tests or lower the passing scores to make it easier to diversify the profession. But these responses omit the central problem that these tests diagnose: aspiring teachers are not prepared by either their K-12 education or their teacher preparation programs in the content they will have to teach.

The report offers recommendations for institutions and state regulators.

Higher education leaders and teacher preparation programs can:

  • Provide better parameters for selecting from courses that count toward general education requirements for undergraduate students who indicate an interest in teaching.
  • Use the teacher preparation program admissions process as an opportunity to diagnose weaknesses in content knowledge, then tailor teacher candidates’ course of study to fill in gaps.
  • Set undergraduate and graduate program content course requirements to align with what elementary teachers need to know.

State policymakers can:

  • Revisit current licensing tests to ensure they capture the content knowledge teachers need to fully prepare students to meet college-and-career readiness standards.
  • Understand that the response to low pass rates is not to abandon tests or make them easier to pass, but to hold teacher prep programs accountable for preparing candidates in the content aligned to elementary standards.
  • Publish first-time and highest-score licensing test pass rates for all candidates enrolled in a teacher prep program to give prospective teacher candidates the information they deserve to choose a program where they are more likely to be successful.
About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. When she isn't wrangling her two children, Laura enjoys running, photography, home improvement, and rooting for the Terps. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura http://twitter.com/eSN_Laura


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