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Study: UMaine System's Teacher Prep Programs Falling Short
06/18/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

The University of Maine system got low rankings from a first-of-its-kind study that evaluates teacher preparation. Nearly all seven UMaine campuses received one star or less for their undergraduate education programs. Maine is not alone in its bottom-level ratings, but some university officials question the review's criteria. Patty Wight reports.

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How's this for a scathing critique of U.S. education programs? The newly-released Teacher Prep Review calls it an "industry of mediocrity." Out of 1,400 institutions evaluated by the National Council on Teacher Quality - which published the report - just four received a full four-star ranking.

Managing Director of Teacher Preparation Studies Arthur McKee says the education training field is in disarray. "Most programs are getting two or fewer stars," he says.

And that includes Maine's. Most of the state university campuses received less than one star for their undergraduate education programs. Just a handful eked out an overall single-star rating, like the Orono campus, for its elementary education program, and Fort Kent and Presque Isle, for their secondary education programs.

The University of Southern Maine shines a little brighter, at two and a half stars. McKee says the rankings for elementary education programs are the most troubling. "We don't see a single program in Maine that is doing a good job in teaching reading," he says.

McKee say there are bright spots in some Maine teacher training programs, but overall, they do a poor job teaching the fundamentals of classroom management, he says, and need to be more selective when admitting education students.

To create its rankings, the study evaluated course requirements, syllabuses, and admission standards. It took eight years and 10 pilot studies to hone the methodology. But Maine education officials are not convinced the review gives an accurate picture of their programs.

"You know, to make these judgements without ever a campus visit, or to understand what's really happening day to day, and the faculty work - that's leaving a gap in the report, I think," says Cathy Fallona, associate dean for USM's School of Education. She says the review completely ignored the school's strengths.

"Our programs are predominantly at the graduate level, and yet the focus of our report was undergraduate teacher education," she says. "So I was somewhat suprised they didn't identify or report on our largest program and the one we're best known for."

As for raising admission standards, Fallona says USM has already identified that need and raised the bar. The dean of the University of Maine's College of Education, William Nichols, says his school is doing the same. But he thinks there's a larger cultural shift that needs to happen to attract top students to teaching.

"Probably our top students are going into programs like engineering, and NFSA and business," he says. "Education - there's just not going to be a whole lot of monetary reward for pursing what I would consider the most noble of careers."

Nichols says some top-tier students may be turned off to teaching because the profession is under the microscope and tends to undervalued. He thinks the review's methodology only gives a partial picture of the University of Maine education program, and points out that the school undergoes a rigorous accreditation process every two years, where it's evaluated on site.

But he says he appreciates the feedback. "Like most things, we can always be better, and we always are striving to improve," Nichols says.

Arthur McKee, from the National Council on Teacher Quality, says the hope is that the review will tap into the power of the market to inspire change, when aspiring teachers make choices about where to pursue their education. He says there's a reason his organization is targeting teacher training for improvement. The report says the typical first-year teaching experience is akin to fraternity hazing.

"It's not just that teacher preparation is a good lever because it's at the beginning, but it's also because an ever-higher percentage of students are being taught by first-year teachers," McKee says. "So we conservatively estimate that one-and-a-half million students every year get a first-year teacher."

At the Maine Department of Education, spokesperson Samantha Warren says the department is committed to ensuring that teacher education programs are as rigorous as possible. She says the department is continually working with higher education institutions to strengthen their programs.

View the entire Teacher Prep Review report
.

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