Teachers dispute UMaine System’s poor rating in national report

Posted June 18, 2013, at 7:47 p.m.

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Kathryn King, left, in a classroom at Hampden Academy, with her daughter, Kristina King.
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Kathryn King, left, in a classroom at Hampden Academy, with her daughter, Kristina King.

When Kathryn King studied secondary English education at the University of Maine 30 years ago, she found that her academic classes and student teaching experience prepared her very well for her teaching career.

That was true even when she first graduated and was hired to teach life skills to a Dexter Regional High School classroom of children with multiple disabilities. It was true when she taught in a classroom of troubled boys at a school in Michigan. And it’s been true for many years at Hampden Academy, where she teaches history and law studies to high school students.

That’s why the veteran teacher was surprised to learn that the University of Maine System schools were ranked among the worst in the nation for teacher training programs by Washington-based advocacy group National Council on Teacher Quality. The rankings of 1,430 education programs around the country were released Tuesday, with just 10 percent earning three or four stars on the zero- to four-star scale.

Most of Maine’s university system’s education programs received either a single-star or zero-star rating — complete with a warning sign the group calls a “consumer alert” designation.

“I’ve never felt anything but well-prepared,” King, of Hampden, said Tuesday. “I feel as though my teacher preparation has equipped me to work anywhere in the country, and hold my own.”

Only the University of Southern Maine’s undergraduate secondary education teaching program did better. It earned 2½ stars from the privately funded report, which included analysis of admissions standards and textbook and syllabus review.

“Once the world leader in educational attainment, the United States has slipped well into the middle of the pack. Countries that were considered little more than educational backwaters just a few years ago have leapt to the forefront of student achievement,” the report’s executive summary stated. “The review finds [colleges and universities] have become an industry of mediocrity, churning out first-year teachers with classroom management skills and content knowledge inadequate to thrive in classrooms with ever-increasing ethnic and socioeconomic student diversity.”

That’s simply not so, said William Dee Nichols, the dean of the University of Maine’s College of Education and Human Development. He questioned the methodology and goal of the study, which assigned his university one star for its elementary education program and zero stars for its secondary education program. None of Maine’s private colleges appeared to be included in the study, which was begun several years ago.

“We go through national and state accreditation. That’s a very rigorous process. We go through review … it’s a much more multifaceted and rigorous process than just looking at syllabi,” Nichols said. “I want to say it’s invalid, because the data sources that they used to assign the grade were incomplete. If this was a true research study, I think it would have a hard time getting published in a peer review journal.”

Among other concerns, the University of Maine’s program was cited by the study for not aligning with the Common Core State Standards for education, which outline the skills students should master in English and math from kindergarten through grade 12. The program also was cited for not having a high enough grade-point average for its admission standard.

Nichols said these concerns already have been addressed. At the time of the study, the state of Maine had not yet adopted the Common Core, but when it did in 2011, the University of Maine schools aligned with those standards. After a yearlong conversation, his college has increased the grade-point average for admissions to 3.0, which is in line with what the report suggested.

“A lot of the things we were cited for, we are doing very well already. Unfortunately, it didn’t come across very clearly in the syllabi they examined,” said Nichols.

Angela Hardy, who studied elementary teaching at the University of Maine at Farmington — an institution which received zero stars in the report — is a senior associate at Great Schools Partnership, a Portland-based nonprofit organization that works to improve schools.

She taught higher education at Unity College when that private school chose not to participate in the study, in part because officials felt there wasn’t enough information about the National Council on Teacher Quality’s method and goals.

“The only input they have is syllabi and the only output they have is test scores,” she said of the study’s methodology. “This is a group that’s traditionally had negative commentary about teacher preparation programs.”

Hardy said that in her experience, some Maine teacher preparation programs are doing a very good job, and some likely could use some work. But all are different, and trying to apply a narrow set of criteria to judge them along with schools across the nation just doesn’t sound logical, she said.

“You survey your students when they leave. You get feedback from the mentor teachers. You adjust your program,” she said. “In Maine we have a peer review process. It’s certainly not a cushy system.”

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