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How Well Are Teachers Being Taught? New Report Finds Majority of Teacher Prep Programs Thoroughly Instructing Future Educators on the Science of Reading

By Mikhail Zinshteyn | January 27, 2020

National Council on Teacher Quality

For the first time, a majority of traditional programs educating future elementary school teachers thoroughly cover the science of reading, according to a new report from a watchdog of the nation’s teacher preparation programs.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, which has in the past butted heads with teacher groups, reviewed the reading coursework and practice opportunities of 1,000 elementary school teaching programs across a wide range of programs. Based on curriculum spanning from the undergraduate level to alternative providers, NCTQ developed an assessment of where the nation’s teacher preparation sector stands on educating future classroom leaders on how children learn to read.

More than a third of fourth-graders are considered below basic on the country’s gold standard for reading assessment. NCTQ argues that those woes could be reduced if more teachers knew how to improve the reading abilities of students. The report comes on the heels of a recent survey of reading specialists that found that 60 percent say teacher preparation programs are not providing “effective reading instruction.”

For the first time in NCTQ’s ratings, more than half — 51 percent — of the traditional programs evaluated received a letter grade of an A or B, meaning that at least four of the five main components of reading science are thoroughly taught to candidates studying to become teachers. In 2013, only 35 percent of programs received such letter grades; most programs that year received a D or F, meaning two or fewer of the five components were taught.

National Council on Teacher Quality

The report also notes that there are disparities among the various types of programs. Undergraduate teacher preparation schools were more likely to teach the five components of reading than graduate programs were. While 57 percent of undergraduate programs received a score of A or B from NCTQ, just 31 percent of graduate schools did the same. Most graduate programs in the latest report scored a D or F. Undergraduate programs outperformed graduate programs on average by at least 20 percentage points on each of the five components of reading science.

The finding perplexes NCTQ President Kate Walsh. In an interview, she said she’s “grasping for straws” as to why “grad programs are so remarkably deficient.”

National Council on Teacher Quality

Asked why the overall scores have gone up, Walsh said NCTQ can claim part of the credit for being a longtime advocate of reading science instruction in teacher preparation programs. She also credits parent groups for applying pressure on state authorities.

The group’s advocacy includes requiring assessments that measure how much teachers know about reading science before they’re allowed to lead classrooms. According to the Council’s latest ratings, 16 states have strong assessments, while 10 don’t assess candidates at all. Previous reporting by The 74 shows some skepticism about the link between these assessments and teacher performance in the classroom.

Programs were more likely to teach certain components of reading science over others. Just around half taught phonemic awareness, which stresses the sounds made by spoken words. It’s the first skill young students must learn to become successful readers, the report says. Programs do a better job of teaching phonics, which maps speech sounds onto letters and letter combinations.

Another shortcoming among teacher programs is the relative dearth of fluency instruction, an approach to teaching that allows students to practice reading words to the point where they don’t require much effort. Programs get higher marks for teaching vocabulary and reading comprehension, aspects of reading that allow young learners to understand the text read to them and that they eventually read themselves.

National Council on Teacher Quality

As part of NCTQ’s analysis, its panel of experts — a mix of practitioners and scholars with doctorates — reviewed every reading course in an elementary teacher preparation program. NCTQ analyzes the syllabus for every course, obtained either from the program’s leadership or through students in the program, as well as the textbooks assigned to determine if they’re of high quality. The expert panel evaluates whether the programs dedicate sufficient time to mastering each of the five reading components, such as through lectures, fieldwork and assignments. Part of the analysis matches past findings, like the recent survey of literary specialists that found that 59 percent of teachers said they received training in phonemic awareness.

The council spent a decade fine-tuning its approach to program review before it launched its first report in this series in 2013. Academics have also sounded the alarm on the education future elementary school teachers receive. One 2009 study concluded that “instructors at many teacher training institutions may also not be knowledgeable about the basic linguistic constructs needed for literacy development.” A 2016 study argued that the science of reading “is being stifled and opposed by the uninformed, educational social structures and educational power elite.” In 2010, a study of a representative sample of students in school to become teachers found that on average they could answer correctly only 57 percent of the questions on an assessment about the five components of reading science.

NCTQ has faced criticism in the past for missteps in due diligence. Education policy stalwarts and other experts have faulted previous NCTQ reports for factual errors and a reliance on written materials that may not reflect the full breadth of instruction teacher candidates receive.

Still, the importance of teaching phonics to young readers is widely embraced, even if many schools teaching children overlook it. Phonics instruction may be one reason the state of Mississippi, long synonymous with lowly placement on state education rankings, has seen its average reading scores skyrocket since doubling down on the science of reading instruction in its teacher-prep programs and in classrooms.

Like all things in education, the primacy of phonics has its dissenters. One of the most enduring findings in support of phonics instruction came from the National Reading Panel, convened by Congress in the 1990s to settle the so-called reading wars. While the panel’s report in 2000 concluded that the instruction of phonics is essential to mastering reading, a member of the panel had called the deliberations “narrow, biased and elitist.”

For the 2020 report, NCTQ shared its preliminary scores with all programs and sought feedback. Fifteen percent of the programs evaluated provided additional material, and 60 percent of those programs saw their scores changed as a result. The report includes letter grades for every program NCTQ evaluated, as well as for specific textbooks. According to the report, of “the 725 textbooks required by programs reviewed in this edition, 40 percent are inadequate for the purposes of teaching the science of reading.”

The report’s findings earned plaudits from one of the nation’s leading teacher labor voices. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers union, said in a prepared statement that “[t]his good news from NCTQ should strengthen our resolve to use the tools we have to continue to improve reading instruction and to invest in and listen to the educators who are teaching this fundamental life skill.”

“[F]or decades, educators around the country have clamored for access to science-based reading instruction,” Weingarten also said, noting that more programs teaching the science of reading “is a sign that we all recognize how critical it is to teach reading in a way that works, and that sticks.”

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