Great Teachers are the Most Important Factor in Educating our Youth

Wouldn't it be great to have an outstanding teacher in every Alaska classroom? Alaska can make that happen by improving its education colleges so it can graduate top notch teachers who can motivate our students to excel.

by: David Nees

The Alaska Policy Forum is continuing to participate in the Education Matters series, a continuation of Mayor Sullivan‘s Education Summit.  The latest meeting was on May 9, 2014 and focused on teacher preparation and quality.

Three guest speakers made presentations followed by a series of cross questioning leading to group consensus.  A wide range of Alaska education policy experience was represented.  Participants included Mayor Dan Sullivan, Cheryl Frasca,  ASD Superintendent Ed Graff, several School Board members, former Education Commissioners Shirley Holloway and Jerry Covey, and Deans of the University of Alaska Education Colleges.

Dan Goldhaber, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Education Data and Research, presented on how student outcomes can be used to assess teacher preparation.  His full presentation can be found here.

According to Dr. Goldhaber, student outcomes (results) measure the effectiveness of teacher training programs.  Using a variety of sampling methods and allowing for variations in achievement for special education and economically disadvantaged students, he concluded that student achievement measures effectiveness of teacher preparation programs with a high degree of correlation.

Dr. Goldhaber’s bottom line: training does matter. Link to video of discussion afterwards is here.

The Alaska Policy Forum believes it is important to use the correct measuring tool, and appropriate norm measurement, to assess how well teachers have been prepared for the classroom.  Hopefully, the State of Alaska will select a more valid measurement tool for Alaska teacher preparation than it did in the past with the high school exit exam (HSGQE).

Kate Walsh, President of the National Council on Teacher Quality, spoke about the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs in the United States.  Her full presentation is here. The NCTQ has argued that teacher preparation has left behind the vision of Horace Mann–founder of public education in America—who believed it necessary to employ a highly trained, effective cadre of teaching specialists, trained in childhood development, to provide a path into the workforce for women.  She stated that American education teacher training is today where medical schools were in America in 1910–diploma mills turning out unqualified candidates.  Ms. Walsh and the NCTQ are hoping to reform the colleges of education in the U.S. to bring effectiveness back into the training of future teachers.  Specifically, she identified limited entry into education programs and standard terminology in instruction as two areas necessary for upgrading teacher training.  (Go here to see how Alaska is rated for teacher effectiveness).

The bottom line from Ms. Walsh’s presentation: the GPA average for candidates enrolled in all college education programs are a full 1.0 higher than any other degreed programs. The result is education colleges are turning out more elementary education degrees than needed.

Cap Peck, Ph.D., Professor, College of Education, University of Washington, discussed evidence and action–motivating and sustaining teacher education program improvement.  His full presentation is here.

Dr. Peck was the story teller in the group. He has been the dean of education colleges at several universities and discussed the difficulty of getting the professors of education to institute change.  This change consisted of something as basic as having those who teach education theory being the same faculty members who observe student teachers in practice.  His Education College programs have gone from D and F-rated programs by NCTQ to B-rated programs. He recounted the methodology used by NCTQ for setting the quality expectation bar, and how his program strategically rose to it.  He implied that the quality of teachers he turns out now is much better than before his program was challenged.

The final panel included the deans of the University of Alaska Colleges of Education programs who, after being criticized and having received an F and then a D by NCTQ, were open to criticism and themselves challenged NCTQ ‘s findings.

There were many pointed questions by the attendees. Education Matters has not drawn any conclusions or recommendations yet, and will have one last meeting.

However, we have drawn some preliminary conclusions.

  • The professional training of teachers, unlike doctors, nurses, and lawyers, is not uniform, in terminology and implementation.
  • The State of Alaska has a high teacher turnover rate.  Because Alaska has no data collection, it is unable to determine the cause of this high turnover rate.  Are those teachers who are leaving the state graduates of high quality or lower quality education colleges?  Alaska needs to collect the data and ask those departing teachers why they are leaving.
  • The University of Alaska is responsible for a fairly low number of the teacher certificates (College of Education graduates) in Alaska-less than 200 annually. On the other hand, it is responsible for most of the Masters Degrees in Education for active teachers.  Are these advanced degrees relevant to the classroom and do they improve the classroom experience?
  • With a D-rated education program, should the University of Alaska be entrusted with continuing, and higher education for our teachers?
  • Should the state certify any teacher who received his/her degree from a D or F-rated program?
  • Should the state require mastery of the teaching of reading and math before issuing a teacher certificate?

Without a doubt, the most important factor in a child receiving a good to great public education is the teacher in the classroom.  Teacher preparation must be relevant to today’s classroom and should require a significant amount of on-the-job classroom experience.  Education theory is fine; education experience is great.

Alaska must take an introspective hard look at its colleges of education and be willing to take on the challenge of being the absolute best at educating its teacher workforce.  The status quo will not work.  We need to research what is working at other universities, discard the irrelevant, and graduate top notch teachers who can motivate our youth to excel. We owe it to our kids.

David Nees has taught math to Anchorage students for 28 years and is now retired.