Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children
Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children

Today’s guest blog was written by Strategies for Children staff, Titus DosRemedios and Kelly Kulsrud.

To become proficient readers by the end of third grade, children need high-quality literacy instruction from their teachers.

Unfortunately, a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) – “Teacher Prep Review: A Review of the Nation’s Teacher Preparation Programs” –   suggests that teachers are not getting the training they need to help their students become strong readers.

The report finds “Three out of four elementary teacher preparation programs still are not teaching the methods of reading instruction that could substantially lower the number of children who never become proficient readers, from 30 percent to under 10 percent. Instead, the teacher candidate is all too often told to develop his or her “own unique approach” to teaching reading.”

These findings that urge better literacy preparation for teachers speak to an overall need for stronger teacher training. “We need more effective teacher preparation. Our profound belief that new teachers and our children deserve better from America’s preparation programs is the touchstone of this project,” the report says. The report’s researchers looked at “1,130 institutions that prepare 99 percent of the nation’s traditionally trained new teachers.”

NCTQ looked at four areas of teacher preparation: the criteria education schools use to screen candidates; subject area preparation; the quality of teachers’ professional skills; and education programs’ institutional outcomes.

The result is a four-star rating system that ranks education programs across the country. There is an honor role of successful schools as well as consumer alert warnings about other schools.

The report and its rating system have generated controversy. As NCTQ explains, it had to sue some states to get information from education schools. In addition the analysis in the report has been criticized. California officials say the report fails to recognize unique features of how the state educates teachers. Debbie Mercer, the dean of education at Kansas State University, says that the report relied on flawed data collection and based its conclusions on incorrect facts. And the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education released a response that questions the report’s methodology and motives.

However, the report raises important issues in teacher education, including the issue of teaching early reading. A focus on how we prepare teachers to foster children’s language and literacy development is particularly important in Massachusetts where 39 percent of third graders cannot read at grade level – an outcome that has remained stagnant for more than a decade.

NCTQ’s Standards

The report rates education schools using 18 standards “derived from strong research, the practices of high-performing nations and states, consensus views of experts, the demands of the Common Core State Standards.” The standards are “specific and measurable, and are designed to identify the teacher preparation programs most likely to get the best outcomes for their students.”

Of the 18 standards, three are particularly relevant to the goal of improving third grade reading outcomes. Standard two pertains to early reading. “Teaching children how to read is ‘job one’ for elementary and special education teachers because reading proficiency underpins all later learning. Unfortunately, some 30 percent of all children do not become capable readers,” according to an NCTQ write-up of this standard.

To assess teacher-training in early reading, this standard focuses on whether “coursework lectures and practice adequately cover the five essential components of effective reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension strategies.”  The five components come from the National Reading Panel’s recommendations in its 2000 report. Only 29% of elementary and special education programs met this standard whereby “Program coursework comprehensively prepares teacher candidates to be effective reading instructors by addressing at least four of the five essential components.”

Standard three addresses literacy strategies for English language learners. “Elementary teachers often serve as the first teachers of English to the increasing numbers of students who come to school speaking other languages. It is imperative that these teachers are equipped to take on the challenge of teaching these students how to read,” NCTQ says.

To satisfy this standard, education schools had to offer at least one course that covers areas such as teaching interventions and adapting instruction to serve all learners. Only 24% of elementary programs met this standard.

Standard four in the report looks at whether “reading courses deliver the instructional strategies necessary for teaching struggling readers and require candidates to practice such strategies.”  This is crucial because, “In most cases, the root cause of a diagnosis of a learning disability is significant trouble reading. So the best way to reduce the proportion of children in special education is to train teachers at the front line in the most effective strategies for preventing reading failure. In all but a few cases, early intervention by the classroom teacher can significantly improve the reading skills of students struggling to read.” Only 22% of elementary programs met this standard.

Another Source for Examining Teacher Preparation in Early Reading

The federal government looked at teacher training in a 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences – “Study of Teacher Preparation in Early Reading Instruction.”  In this report, researchers looked at more than 2,200 pre-service teachers and 99 higher education institutions to determine the extent to which “teacher education programs focus on the essential components of early reading instruction.” These are the same five components as the NCTQ report: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension strategies. The federal report also surveyed and assessed graduating pre-service teachers to gauge their knowledge about the essential components of early reading instruction.

The survey found that pre-service teachers rated the overall focus of their training programs (based on coursework and field experience) on the essential components of early reading instruction “above ‘little’ but below ‘moderate,’” yielding a ranking of 1.76 on a three-point scale.

The assessment to determine whether teachers were “knowledgeable” about early reading instruction, was a multiple-choice test that asked about the five essential components of reading. Results found that “on average, pre-service teachers answered 57 percent of the items correctly. Pre-service teachers were able to answer 53 percent of the alphabetics subscale questions correctly, 61 percent of the fluency subscale questions, and 58 percent of the meaning subscale.”

The Department of Education study and the NCTQ report both point to a common theme:  there is room for improvement in teacher education schools for training teachers in early literacy instruction. Given the importance of instructional quality in shaping children’s reading outcomes in third grade and beyond, policymakers must ensure that educators receive adequate pre-service training and ongoing, high-quality in-service professional development.