AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s rookie teachers are woefully unprepared for working in the classroom but no worse off than the dismal national average, according to a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality.
The council, in a report released Wednesday, gave Maine a grade of D+ for its teacher preparation policies in 2012. That’s an improvement from Maine’s standing in 2011, when it received a D, and equal to the national average. According to the report, Maine is in a minority of 14 states which improved their performance year over year.
That improvement, according to education officials, is evidence that Maine is moving in the right direction, albeit slowly.
“What I got from this report is that Maine is average,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association. “Could we improve on some of the things that were mentioned in the report? Of course we could. But this is another one of these out-of-state groups who are trying to grade Maine education and Maine schools, when most of them have never stepped a day inside a school. I think we have to take what they say with a grain of salt.”
The report suggests a range of changes to teacher-training policies in Maine:
• Raising admission requirements at higher education institutions so only the most qualified would-be teachers are admitted.
• Ensuring that elementary teachers know their subject matter and have the knowledge and skills to teach the Common Core State Standards, a 2-year-old program in which a majority of states are working toward enacting common academic standards.
• Prohibiting K-8 teaching licenses that don’t distinguish between teaching elementary and middle school students.
• Ensuring that secondary social studies teachers have sufficient content knowledge.
• Increasing standards for special education teacher standards to ensure they are capable of teaching grade-level content.
• Requiring that student teachers are assigned to teachers who have demonstrated evidence of effectiveness as measured by student achievement.
• Setting minimum performance standards for teacher preparation programs and holding them accountable for the performance of their graduates.
According to the report, 94 percent of teacher preparation programs in Maine are “insufficiently selective and failing to ensure that candidates come from the top half of the college-going population.” This week’s report serves as a preamble to another report scheduled for release later this year that will focus on what higher education organizations are doing well in teacher training, as well as where they’re failing.
Kilby-Chesley said she supports more rigorous training standards for would-be teachers, but from a practical perspective she sees a problem: Teaching in Maine isn’t lucrative enough to fill training programs with top-tier candidates.
“The problem with raising admission requirements in Maine, is that teachers come out the other end with a starting salary of $30,000 a year,” she said. “Our problem is not so much that we need to raise admission requirements as it is that we can’t attract some of the students we would like to have into teaching career paths.”
David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education, said many of the suggestions in the report are aspects Maine is already working on, such as improving teachers’ understanding of the Common Core State Standards. Other areas, such as raising admissions thresholds in higher education and setting performance standards for those same institutions, hit roadblocks because the Maine Department of Education doesn’t oversee higher education.
“We find reports like this useful in getting a sense of where we are on policies and achievement in comparison to other states,” said Connerty-Marin. “We agree on many of these recommendations.”
National Council on Teacher Quality President Kate Walsh said many states are putting a lot of effort into professional development for teachers — including Maine, which is in the midst of developing a new teacher and principal evaluation system — and that some emphasis needs to be shifted to precareer training.
“With so much attention on the issue of teacher effectiveness, the relative lack of attention to how candidates for teaching are prepared for the job in the first place is puzzling,” said Walsh in a news release. “Our teachers deserve the very best preparation so that they can step into the classroom and help our students prepare to be the most successful in the world.”