Teacher-training schools under pressure to prepare for Common Core

It’s not just K-12 teachers who are being asked to adjust their teaching styles and curricula to ensure students learn the Common Core standards. The people who teach the teachers also are under the gun.

But as the controversial standards take root, there’s disagreement over whether teacher-training programs are doing enough to prepare aspiring educators for the dramatic changes they will encounter in classrooms across America.

Some organizations, such as the National Council on Teacher Quality, have criticized teacher-training programs for responding too slowly to the new standards.

“There’s no evidence that this (the Common Core) has made its way into the thinking about how to train new teachers,” said Kate Walsh, the council’s president.

A June report from the organization, surveying about 1,100 institutions, concluded that only 11 percent of elementary programs and about one-third of high school programs appear to prepare candidates who can successfully teach the Common Core.

The standards, which most states have adopted in English and math only, do not constitute a curriculum.

They do lay out general skills students should learn by different stages, such as being able to count to 120 by the end of first grade. Schools that follow the standards should also adhere to general-educational principles, such as prioritizing analytical-essay writing over first-person narratives.

In Louisiana, leaders of teacher-preparation programs say they are making significant changes in line with Common Core: Emphasizing literacy across the curriculum, asking their candidates to design more assessments with multi-step math problems and teaching them to identify appropriately challenging texts.

“They are all supposed to be making changes to what is happening in their curriculum,” said Jeanne Burns, the Louisiana Board of Regents’ associate commissioner for teacher and leadership initiatives.

At Tulane University, teacher candidates must write sample lesson plans aligned with Common Core, said Linda McKee, director of the teacher preparation and certification program.

Prospective teachers start with an overview course called Education in a Diverse Society, in which they receive an introduction to the new standards.

In their second class, the students attempt to put those standards into practice while writing their first lesson and unit plans; they continue to explore the standards in greater depth as they advance through their methods courses.

“There’s not a lesson they write without addressing the Common Core,” McKee said.

At Southeastern Louisiana University, instructors ensure teacher candidates understand the major shifts under Common Core, said Cynthia Elliott, the interim head of the department of teaching and learning.

The professors point out, for instance, the emphasis on non-fiction in the standards and teach their students to evaluate the complexity of a text, a crucial skill for teachers under the Common Core.

Elliott said many of the standards are aligned with the practices and principles education professors have long prioritized.

“We’ve been advocating a greater emphasis on literacy across the curriculum for years,” she said.

At the same time, she worries about teachers’ stamina for change in a state that’s introducing the Common Core, a new teacher-evaluation system, and a new standardized test all within a short time frame.

“I think it’s been very hard on teachers in the field,” said Elliott. “They are rolling out so many things at one time that it has really impacted the teaching profession … I hope it doesn’t have a backlash where we don’t have enough certified teachers.”

Across the country, most teacher-preparation programs scarcely mention the Common Core in recent course syllabi, said Julie Greenberg, a senior policy analyst at the National Council on Teacher Quality. “In half the programs we see not a smidgeon of reference, direct or indirect, to anything Common Core related.”

Greenberg said her organization would update the survey over the next year, focusing on 100 programs nationwide that had course syllabi available for a more-detailed analysis.

The researchers will look in the syllabi for key words that suggest an attempt to teach Common Core-related skills and values, such as lessons on text-complexity analysis (the standards go into considerable detail on how teachers should determine which grade level to teach a text; following the guidelines, classics like “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” would be considered more appropriate for middle school than high school); teaching history through a literary focus; identifying informational texts; or forming evidence-based arguments.

“A lecture on Common Core is not enough,” Greenberg said. “Talking about it is easy. Doing it takes practice.” But she intends to be “generous” in her interpretation of which changes might have been prompted by the Common Core.

Leaders of education-training programs say the Common Core is incorporated throughout classes and cannot always be easily detected in course or lesson titles.

“The professors don’t put in their syllabus, ‘This is part of the Common Core,’ ” McKee said. “It’s just ingrained.”

Southeastern University’s Elliott said the new standards might prompt some changes in course titles over time, but only after a lengthy curriculum-review process that can take up to a year.

“In the short term, we’ve revised the content in our courses,” she said.

The current debate aside, some education leaders believe colleges of education need to do a better job ensuring their graduates know how to create and revise curricula — no matter what happens with the Common Core.

“(They) do not do enough on teaching candidates the fundamentals on building curricula and critiquing them,” said Andre Perry, the dean of urban education at Davenport University (who previously worked at the University of New Orleans and Loyola).

“Students should leave a program knowing how to … teach and adjust the Common Core and the next curriculum to come along.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.