ORLANDO, Fla. — Teachers have been under a hot spotlight in recent years, blamed for public education’s shortcomings. Now the colleges that train them are feeling the heat.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is calling for reforms in the nation’s education schools, arguing too many are “mediocre” and send out graduates who aren’t ready to teach.
In a speech last month, Duncan noted 62 percent of new teachers reported feeling unprepared. He called that figure from a 2006 study “staggering.”
The Florida Department of Education has crunched student-test-score data and tied results back to teachers’ education schools, looking to tease out which institutions are best. That effort could ramp up into a more-detailed rating system for all Florida’s education schools.
The most intense, and controversial, scrutiny likely will come when teacher colleges find themselves graded A to F next year, with the results posted in U.S. News & World Report.
Florida’s college and universities, which produce about 7,000 teacher candidates a year, chafe at the criticism and object to the new efforts to grade, judge and rank them. They are confident they do a good job preparing new teachers, noting most school districts happily snap up their graduates.
Sandra Robinson, dean of the University of Central Florida’s College of Education, thinks the broad-brush complaints aren’t fair to her school, which produces more teachers than any other in the state.
“Certainly, there is a sense of frustration with regard to that,” she said, as UCF graduates leave ready for the classroom.
“Our students — absolutely, no question in the 95th percentile or the 98th percentile — feel not just prepared but well-prepared,” she added.
Elizabeth Brumer, a UCF education major, would agree — to a point.
Brumer, in her last semester of college, is a confident student-teacher at Grand Avenue Primary Learning Center in Orlando.
But she wonders how her strong skills will seem when she is a full-fledged teacher with a classroom of her own. Without the support of an experienced teacher, one of her friends went from “star intern” to “struggling” teacher after graduation.
“I feel like they prepare us very well,” she said of her UCF professors, but they should probably provide students more opportunities “to take on their own class and develop their own methods.”
That is one of the key concerns prompting the new focus on education schools: that would-be teachers do not get enough practice teaching before they start full-time work. Some worry that fuels high turnover in the field. In Florida, after five years on the job, 40 percent of new teachers have left the profession, state data show.
Other complaints: Teacher colleges are not selective enough in whom they admit — elementary education teachers have average SAT scores below the national mean — and don’t give would-be teachers sufficient skills to teach their curriculum or instruct diverse groups of students.
Florida has begun preliminary work on a detailed rating system for its teacher programs, one that would encourage better “field experiences” for education students, said Kathy Hebda, the Education Department’s deputy chancellor for educator quality.
The state’s 2-year-old effort to tie student growth on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to teacher programs is a “first step” in that effort.
“Teacher preparation is a vital part of having the best teachers in our classroom,” she added.
Florida’s teacher-education schools, though working with the state, are not willing participants in the U.S. News review. The state’s public-records laws, however, mean that these institutions will be graded in the magazine’s first-ever rating of the nation’s more than 1,000 teacher-preparation schools.
The National Council on Teacher Quality, which has been doing reports on teacher preparation for the past five years, is U.S. News’ research partner.
“There’s definitely a quality issue with teacher-preparation programs in this country,” said Arthur McKee, the council’s managing director of teacher-preparation studies. “We’re not where we need to be.”
The review, due out in fall 2012, has the support of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of large, urban school districts that includes Orange County and five other big Florida school systems.
The group sent a support letter in August saying “too many Colleges of Education are graduating students who are poorly prepared academically and not ready to provide quality instruction in our urban classrooms.”
Meanwhile, many state university systems, from California to New York, sent letters complaining about the plans.
In his letter, Frank Brogan, chancellor of Florida’s State University System, called the review “flawed” and said the grading system wouldn’t capture the true quality of programs that have helped Florida’s public schools make “significant achievement gains.”
Many educators accept that education schools don’t provide new teachers everything they need to do well on the job.
Volusia County schools, in partnership with its teachers union, this year devised a new mentor program for beginning teachers, seeking to bridge the gap between college and classroom.
Many new teachers struggle to manage their classes, said Michele McCoy, a veteran teacher who works in the new peer-assistance program.
“That’s common across new teachers since the beginning of time,” she said.
McCoy said colleges could do more to help students with practical skills instead of spending so much time teaching about educational theories.
“That’s a background piece,” McCoy said. “What new teachers need is, ‘What is it supposed to look like in a modern classroom?’ “
Lindsey Roseboom is a new first-grade teacher at Pride Elementary in Deltona. McCoy is her mentor and her “go-to professional friend.”
McCoy’s regular classroom visits and constant advice have made Roseboom’s year easier, she said. “It’s great to have someone that’s on your side, walking with you.”
A graduate of Daytona State College, Roseboom said her school taught her well, but no college can fully prepare new teachers for all they might face in the classroom.
“The best thing they can teach a teacher is to be flexible,” she said.
The chairman of Stetson University’s education department said much the same.
“I really think if we’re going to try to get a 21-year-old completely ready for everything they’re going to face in their career, we’re chasing a pipe dream,” Glen Epley said. “It’s much more important to prepare them to adapt to the changing times.”
Stetson, a private university in DeLand, is not participating in the U.S. News review, which Epley called “politically biased.” The university also worries about the effort to judge education schools by FCAT scores.
One of the best indicators of his school’s success is that graduates have no problem finding teaching jobs, he said.
Echoing comments of other principals, Principal Stefanie Shames of South Creek Middle in Orange County isn’t disappointed in the new teachers she hires, including three this year at her school. But she thinks education schools could step up their game, providing students more information, for example, about using test-score data to make academic decisions.
“Teaching is an art and science,” she said, “and universities probably need to focus more on that science.”