UNC should rethink how it teaches future teachers, study says

Charlotte Roberts, a graduate teaching assistant for N.C. State’s College of Education, leads a class discussion in October 2017 on how to keep students’ minds from wandering.
Charlotte Roberts, a graduate teaching assistant for N.C. State’s College of Education, leads a class discussion in October 2017 on how to keep students’ minds from wandering. N&O file photo

When students in the UNC system’s teacher training programs were asked what they would do for a child struggling to read, few could cite specific strategies, according to consultants who reviewed public university education programs.

That finding, and others, are highlighted in a report out this week that identifies gaps in the 14 UNC teacher training programs that prepare undergraduates to be teachers. The study also recommends changes to beef up student teachers’ classroom experiences, familiarity with state standards and ability to use research-backed methods to teach reading.

Thirty-seven percent of teachers in the state’s public schools are graduates of the UNC system, and they generally have better evaluations and higher pupil achievement than teachers who come from elsewhere. Still, the report found deficiencies.

UNC President Margaret Spellings, using a grant from the Belk Foundation, commissioned a group of experts in reading instruction to, as she put it, “look under the hood” of the education schools. Consultants met with education deans, faculty and students, examined data and reviewed course curriculum to come up with a snapshot of teacher training. The reviewers did not pass judgment on individual programs but identified trends across the system.

The report recommends a number of steps for the UNC system to review all courses, provide professional development for faculty, increase student field experiences and recruit better students into teacher programs. If the recommendations are carried out, the state’s public universities could see a top-to-bottom remake of teacher education programs.

“We’re not doing as good a job as we can to prepare our teachers to be effective teachers of young children when it comes to literacy,” Spellings said in an interview this week. “When we do that better, we’ll see improvement in scores.”

The review comes at a time of increased scrutiny of teacher education programs in North Carolina. Last year, the legislature passed a law that sets out new criteria for all programs, new licensure policies and more stringent accountability measures. The legislation called for report cards on teacher education programs, and a new commission that will oversee standards.

The UNC team found variation when it came to the different universities’ programs, relationships with local schools, field experiences, entrance requirements, data use and literacy curriculum. At some schools, students didn’t get exposure to the classroom until their junior year. At some campuses, education students needed several attempts to pass a required exam that measures the students’ own reading, writing and math abilities.

Licensure exam passage rates were uneven, ranging from a low of 48 percent at Fayetteville State University to 100 percent at UNC Asheville.

But most of the criticism revolved around the schools’ courses for reading instruction. The report said it wasn’t clear whether the programs were zeroing in on “the five essential components of reading instruction” cited by the 2000 report, “Put Reading First,” from the National Reading Panel. The components are: phonemic awareness, or knowledge of sounds within individual words; phonics, or the relationship of sounds to letters; fluency; vocabulary development; and comprehension strategies.

The team was critical of methods it said were ineffective, including using context and pictures to spur a child to decode words, or writing about personal philosophies on how to teach reading.

“Teaching reading to little children, and to adults who will teach reading to little children, must be an explicit, deliberate and rigorous enterprise,” Spellings said. “I would conclude by reading the report that it is a little too random.”

While North Carolina has made gains in reading in the past decade, test scores show poor overall proficiency. On the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, North Carolina fourth-graders scored above the national average, but only 40 percent were proficient. Among eighth-graders, the proficiency rate was only 30 percent.

Spellings, the former U.S. education secretary under President George W. Bush, describes herself as “a big reading and literacy hawk” since her days with Bush.

“The great debate about reading is long over,” she said, referring to the long-running, somewhat politicized debate over how to teach reading. For decades, educators and policy makers argued between two teaching methods – phonics, which teaches children sounds of letters so that they can decode words, or whole language, which relies more on comprehension and natural exposure to reading.

Ellen McIntyre, dean of the UNC Charlotte’s Cato College of Education, sees the new legislation and push by Spellings as a great opportunity for the state’s education schools to improve. She acknowledges faculty may have frustration with the process.

Data show that UNC system graduates are better prepared to teach elementary school than any other population, McIntyre said. “There’s still a lot of room to grow,” she added. “We have to galvanize behind this report in order to improve teacher preparation. There’s still so much work to be done.”

Education deans recently held an all-day meeting on the report’s results. “We’re all in about this,” McIntyre said.

The system’s work will be led by education deans and an advisory board co-chaired by former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Ann Clark, North Carolina A&T College of Education Dean Anthony Graham and UNC Wilmington Provost Marilyn Sheerer. Spellings will hire an associate vice president to help oversee teacher programs.

Spellings said the outcome may boost the teacher pipeline in the state. The UNC system saw a 30 percent decline in bachelor’s degrees awarded in education from 2010 to 2016. And 8.65 percent of North Carolina public school teachers left the profession in the last school year.

“We have high attrition rates early in teaching careers, you know, five years and less,” she said. “They get in there and they think, ‘Holy cow, I’m not prepared’ and they wash out. One of the things we can do is make sure they’re going to be effective and successful and great at their job when they get there.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill