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Thousands of aspiring teachers are graduating from educator prep programs each year unprepared to teach children how to read, or worse, armed with debunked strategies that can actually make it harder for kids to become proficient readers.
That’s one of the most “sobering” findings of a new national report released Tuesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit that uses data to evaluate teacher prep programs.
But there is some good news: Several states, like Colorado and Arizona, have made significant strides in recent years in how they train teachers to teach reading, following statewide efforts to boost early literacy.
“On the whole — when it comes to teaching teachers how to teach children to read aligned to the science of reading — I’m optimistic,” said Heather Peske, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “And we have a lot of work to do.”
The report comes amid an ongoing national debate about how children best learn to read, and how much emphasis schools should place on explicitly teaching certain key components of literacy, such as phonics.
Dozens of states have passed laws in recent years, according to a tracker maintained by Education Week, that require schools to use materials in line with the long-standing body of evidence on how children learn to read, often called the “science of reading.” Many of these laws also aim to improve teacher training.
To conduct its analysis, the National Council on Teacher Quality looked at course syllabi and materials, such as lecture notes and textbooks, from nearly 700 teacher prep programs across the U.S. The sample is fairly large: Together, those programs produce around two-thirds of all elementary school teacher candidates annually.
Around 1,150 teacher prep programs met the criteria to be reviewed, based on the number of elementary teachers they graduated each year. But some 440 programs declined to provide materials, so they were not reviewed.
The organization also did not rate alternative teacher certification programs, which account for six of the 10 largest teacher prep programs in the nation, based on their number of graduates. The council wasn’t able to obtain materials from several of those programs, which tend to be shorter than traditional prep programs. A council spokesperson likened them to “a black box.”
“It begs the question of: To what extent are they aligning their preparation with the science of reading?” Peske said.
Some 260 programs earned an F grade from the council. Together, they produce upwards of 15,000 elementary teacher candidates a year, the council estimated. (Nationally, prep programs of all kinds graduated around 162,000 teacher candidates in spring 2021, the latest federal data shows, though that included teachers for all grades and subjects.)
Many programs fail to teach key literacy components
One major problem, according to the council’s report, is that around a quarter of the programs the council reviewed fail to adequately teach all five of the key components of literacy. Those are the skills researchers agree are crucial to how children learn to read: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.
Among those skills, phonemic awareness gets the least attention. Four out of 5 programs failed to offer at least seven hours of instructional time on that skill, the bar the council set for adequate coverage. The finding was echoed in similar council evaluations in 2020 and 2016.
That matters because phonemic awareness — which involves working with the individual sounds in words, such as the C-A-T sounds in “cat” — prepares kids to develop phonics skills, which in turn helps them connect the sounds they hear to the letters on the page.
“Because of the interconnectivity of these components, a teacher who lacks an understanding of one will be less effective teaching the others,” the report warns, “and students who miss instruction on one component may struggle to become fully literate.”
Another big issue: Dozens of teacher prep programs are still teaching debunked methods, such as the three-cueing system, which encourages children to guess words they do not know by looking at a picture or the first letter of the word.
Nearly 100 programs were still using a popular curriculum developed by Lucy Calkins, of Columbia University’s Teachers College, which has been criticized by experts for failing to explicitly teach the key components of literacy. Calkins recently revised the curriculum to address those concerns.
Still other programs are teaching a mix of research-backed and non-research-based strategies.
“It reminds me a little of sedimentary rock,” Peske said. “Somehow there is a layer of debunked practices that’s embedded in the program that needs to be extracted.”
Some programs overhauled reading lessons to improve
Several states earned top marks from NCTQ after undertaking a major overhaul of their approach to reading instruction.
Colorado, for example, climbed to the top spot in the nation after a yearslong, statewide campaign that included banning discredited elementary reading curriculum and requiring teacher training that follows the science of reading. Three years ago, the state was in the middle of the pack.
Arizona jumped from near the bottom to the ninth spot over that same period, following similar efforts to improve reading instruction in that state.
Teacher prep programs have put in a lot of work to make that happen.
At Arizona State University, for example, which has one of the largest teacher prep programs in the country, faculty members put in hundreds of hours of work to create a new course that focuses solely on the five key components of literacy. It replaced another class that didn’t dive as deeply into those five skills.
The university’s graduate and undergraduate teacher prep programs earned As on the council’s report.
“This class has a lot of content in it that helps students when they get to the next course, which is more application of their knowledge,” said Carlyn Ludlow, an associate director at ASU’s program who was involved in revamping the courses. “We felt like it was incredibly foundational.”
Next year, the university also is changing an internship so teachers-in-training have a full semester to practice teaching reading in a school.
Some programs are getting outside support to overhaul their work on literacy instruction. Last year, the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment pledged $25 million to support phonics-based instruction for undergraduate teacher prep programs in Indiana’s colleges and universities.
The teacher prep program at Texas A&M University-Texarkana earned an A+ from the council after Carol Cordray, an assistant professor of education, tore up the university’s old approach to teaching reading and started over.
“It was a 100% revamp,” Cordray said. “I don’t know that anything is left of the courses as they were four years ago.”
One of the classes that got a full overhaul focuses on how to assess children in reading. Now teachers-in-training go through a series of case studies, learning how to gather data and make decisions about which interventions to use.
“I’ve had several of my students come back and just say: ‘I’m so grateful for all we learned in your courses because I was right ready to walk in and do what I needed to do,’” Cordray said. “That’s the very best thanks you can get: A prepared teacher.”
Kalyn Belsha is a national education reporter based in Chicago. Contact her at [email protected].
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.