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The quality of teacher education programs: Q & A with James J. Hennessy, Ph.D.

October 8, 2013 | By Nick Alexopulos

James Hennessy
James Hennessy presents during the Leadings Minds speaker series event at Loyola University Maryland on Sept. 26, 2013.

In late September 2013, local and national education experts gathered at Loyola University Maryland for a panel discussion that explored whether teacher colleges are preparing teachers for the classroom. “Ready to Teach: Preparing New Teachers for the Classroom,” this year’s event in the Leading Minds speaker series presented by the Baltimore Curriculum Project and Loyola’s School of Education, came on the heels of a heated national debate over the validity of a report released in June by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) that widely criticized the quality of teacher education programs at colleges and universities across the country.

James J. Hennessy, Ph.D., dean of the Fordham University Graduate School of Education, was among the experts on the panel, which included the NCTQ president Kate Walsh.

He sat down for a one-on-one interview prior to the event to discuss the teacher education issue.

Do you think the criticism of the quality of undergraduate and graduate teacher education programs is valid?

I think there are a number of teacher education schools that may not be doing a good job, but the evidence is anecdotal in most instances. We don't have the data systems in place to come to firm agreement that this institution is doing a good job, that institution is not. I think that with what is going on in the world of accreditation in teacher education, what’s going on in the world of organizations such as the National Council on Teacher Quality, we are moving toward gathering data that will allow us to look at the impact that our graduates – each individual school’s graduates – are having in the K-12 system.

I would be very concerned if we reduced the indicators of impacts to test scores, which is what is being done in a lot of the Race to the Top states, where they want to see growth in test scores. As someone with a deep background in psychometrics, I'm unaware of any single measurement that can be precise enough to be used to evaluate teachers in that way.

What was your reaction to the NCTQ report, and what will the report’s impact be?

NCTQ is the 800-pound gorilla in the teaching world right now. They are bashing schools of education. I think the bashing is unnecessary; I think it is tinged with an unkindness that verges on nastiness and it's off the mark.

The other side of that, NCTQ in some ways was a factor in pushing for the improvement of the accreditation of teacher education institutions. So while generally it is regarded as negative, I think it has contributed to pushing us to say we have to take a serious look at ourselves. And I think with the evolution of the new standards that were recently adopted by the new accrediting agency for teacher education, CAEP. As CAEP gains traction, the need for NCTQ-like evaluations simply passes away.

What challenges should be addressed now and in the future?

We should improve the academic quality of people entering the teaching field. The evidence that Teach for America regularly cites for why its core members do such a good job, is that they have a firm grounding in the liberal arts and sciences. They went to competitive colleges and they got grade point averages in the range of 3.0 and above. They're bringing highly able, highly educated folks into the classroom. That's what the teacher work force should be.

Also, teacher education is too important to be an undergraduate major. Teaching is too important to simply be an occupation. Teaching should rise to the level of a profession. And it cannot, so long as it is an undergraduate major. You don't certify professionals on an undergraduate measure.

It will take 20 years for that wave of teachers to cycle into the system before we will see the major effects that we would be looking for. It is not short term.

James J. Hennessy, Ph.D., is dean of, and a professor in, the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University, where he taught on a variety of subjects in psychology and testing. He has co-authored four books on the psychology of criminal and aggressive behavior, co-edited a book on research ethics and fraud, and most recently co-edited a book on drug court research. His professional affiliations include the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

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