“Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them” Highlights Lack of Rigor in Teacher Preparation; Report Finds That 44% of Teacher Candidates Graduate With Honors While Only 30% of All Undergraduate Students Do So
A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) documents that education majors are significantly more likely to receive high grades and graduate with honors than students in other majors on the same campuses.
The report, Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them, argues that the persistent lack of rigor in teacher education coursework is a disservice to future teachers and their students. By failing to signal the challenge and complexity of real teaching, these courses send too many graduates into the classroom woefully unprepared, thus diminishing the value of their investment in preparation.
NCTQ looked at graduation data for students from more than 500 institutions—where nearly half of all new teachers are prepared—and found that education majors are almost half again as likely as all graduating students to graduate with academic honors.
“Teaching is one of the most difficult and demanding jobs there is,” said Kate Walsh, president of NCTQ. “Yet for reasons that are hard to fathom, it appears to be one of the easiest majors both to get into and then to complete. Our findings are provocative and disturbing, helping to explain why most new teachers are overwhelmed when they walk into the classroom. The situation is not fair to the kids who get assigned to new teachers, nor is it right to shortchange the teachers themselves— who through no fault of their own are not sufficiently prepared.”
Easy A’s is the latest installment in a series of reports by NCTQ, each focusing on a different aspect of teacher preparation. These reports supplement NCTQ’s much broaderTeacher Prep Review, which rates the quality of teacher preparation programs and is published by U.S. News & World Report.
Easy A’s findings:
- Based on spring commencement brochures from 509 institutions, a teacher candidate is half again as likely to graduate with honors: on average, 44 percent of teacher candidates versus only 30 percent of all students in graduating classes earn academic honors.
- This 14 percentage point average differential between graduating teacher candidates and other graduating students (44%-30%) masks the much larger difference found at many of the institutions in the study. At about a quarter of the colleges and universities, the gap stands at a disturbing 20 percentage points, climbing as high as 40 percentage points in 14 (3 percent) of the institutions.
- At a minority but significant number of institutions (42 percent), teacher candidates are not much more likely than their campus peers to earn honors. At these institutions, there are few, no or even reverse differentials—proof that it is possible for grading standards in teacher preparation to align to campus norms.
NCTQ’s analysis did not stop with an examination of grades, but also investigated whyteacher candidates at so many colleges and universities might receive such high grades in professional coursework, even as many surveys report that new teachers frequently struggle to be effective despite their high grades. Ruling out a number of explanations, the analysis ultimately focused on the kinds of assignments that the candidates must complete.
NCTQ analyzed the types of course assignments for 1,161 courses, both education and non-education (including business, psychology, history, nursing, economics and biology) across 33 institutions, finding two basic types of assignments.
NCTQ termed these two types of assignments “criterion-deficient” and “criterion-referenced.” The prevalence of one type of assignment over another proves to be a powerful predictor of whether a course is more or less likely to lead to high grades. (This relationship was determined using a subsample of 499 courses for which the average grade is publicly available.)
Courses where it is relatively easy to earn an "A" rely primarily on criterion-deficient assignments. Such assignments tend to be generally quite broad in nature, do not require demonstration or mastery of particular knowledge or skills, and are often subjective, asking only that students express an opinion.
Courses where it is harder to earn an "A" tend to base grades more on “criterion-referenced” assignments, honing in more narrowly on specific knowledge and skills. These assignments are more objective in nature, with an understanding that some strategies are more effective than others in the classroom. (Examples of the two types of assignments can be found at the conclusion of the press release, with many examples taken from teacher preparation coursework in Sections 2 and 4, and Appendix D of the report.)
“Criterion-deficient” assignments are overwhelmingly more common in education coursework than in the courses in other majors. In the average teacher preparation course, criterion-deficient assignments account on average for 71 percent of the grade, but in non-education coursework such assignments account for only 34 percent of the course grade.
Based on this research, NCTQ makes a number of recommendations. Among them, teacher preparation programs need to examine teacher candidates' grades on their own campuses to align their grades with other majors, set common standards for what it takes to earn top marks, shift the balance of assignments from criterion-deficient to criterion-referenced, and award honors to only a limited percentile of top-performing candidates.