Lack of rigor explains Easy A’s

By: | February 23, 2015

Are teacher prep programs giving out A’s and honors distinctions too easily?

That these programs tend to be relatively easy is something many have long suspected. The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently documented this phenomenon in a study, “Training Our Future Teachers: Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them.” This research examined the proportion of teacher candidates who graduated with honors and compared it to the honors rate for other graduates on the same campus—finding that half again as many teacher candidates earn honors.

In a February 2015 District Administration article about the findings (“Do teacher prep programs lack rigor?”), Linda Houser, incoming president of the Association of Teacher Educators, challenged our analysis.

Houser denies that there is any connection between program rigor and high grades and was quoted in the article as saying, “On GPA, they (NCTQ) made the assumption that because more education students received honors, the rigor of the programs tends to be less. … That’s one of the assumptions that’s a huge leap—there’s no research to show that connection.”

Houser suggests that teacher prep programs are admitting only strong students, so the fact that many more qualify for academic honors at graduation shouldn’t be a surprise. “If you’re only accepting those who do well, who are academically talented and gifted, you’re naturally going to have students graduating with higher GPAs.”

She is mistaken both in her assertions and the facts.

Conflicting evidence

The majority of the 509 institutions require only a 2.5 GPA for admission into their teacher prep programs. A 2.5 means that candidates who have a solid C average can qualify. Only 10 percent of the institutions in the study require teacher candidates to have even a B average. That’s hardly evidence of a tough admissions policy.

The evidence we turn up largely disputes Houser’s explanation of why prospective teachers are so likely to receive high grades. Meanwhile, we found a more plausible explanation by examining the types of assignments students were given.

Opinion vs. skills

When we looked at more than 1,100 courses in an array of majors, we found that teacher-prep students are far and away more likely to be given open-ended assignments that focus on opinions. This makes it more difficult for instructors to give substantive feedback and to evaluate whether students have mastered skill-based content.

These kinds of assignments are overwhelmingly more common in teacher prep courses than in courses for other academic majors. Meanwhile, these other majors are more likely to give assignments that require students to demonstrate their knowledge of a skill or content area.

On average, these open-ended, opinion-based assignments are used about twice as often in teacher education coursework as in other courses on the same campus.

Houser dismissed this finding, however, suggesting our analysis puts pressure on programs to reduce the creativity of assignments.

“We don’t want candidates to regurgitate a correct answer or focus on one narrow, limited situation,” she said.

Ending the practice

Of course, teaching requires enormous creativity—there is no argument there—but that creativity should build on, and not supplant, the content and strategies that research and experience show have positive results. Just as in the study of medicine or law, there is difficult content that every would-be teacher needs to know.

Ending the practice of awarding easy A’s is really not all that complicated. If our students are required to demonstrate the kinds of skills and strategies they will need to be effective, and if they must master a deep understanding of topics they’ll teach, their coursework assuredly will be challenging—and those who do well really will be ready to teach.

Kate Walsh is president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.