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Higher Teacher Standards Urged

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New Mexico’s colleges of education are not doing enough to prepare future teachers for the classroom, according to a new legislative report.

The report, released Wednesday by the Legislative Finance Committee, calls for higher standards in teacher preparation programs, more oversight from the state Public Education Department and more time in the classroom for student teachers.

The report also recommends that data about the quality of teachers educated in local colleges should be a factor in how those schools are funded.

Deans of several colleges said they are eager to improve their programs but question the report’s reliance on standardized tests as measures of student learning and teacher ability.

“Nationally, we have been misled to believe and to think that standardized tests measure student achievement, measure student knowledge, and measure student learning, and I contend that standardized tests do not do that,” said Michael Morehead, College of Education dean at New Mexico State University.

The 60-page report used various measures to evaluate New Mexico’s teacher colleges, including surveys, interviews and statistical calculations based on test scores. Researchers examined degree requirements, course syllabi and the credentials of students entering teacher programs.

Researchers found that these entering students are “academically average” according to their ACT scores. Prospective teachers in New Mexico have an average ACT score of 20.1, which is slightly above the state average of 19.8. But the report’s authors say standards should be raised.

The report cites research in other states that found teachers with higher ACT scores helped their students make greater strides on reading tests. More broadly, the report makes the argument that low standards in teaching colleges are connected to low student achievement in New Mexico.

The report also found that nearly all teaching students pass New Mexico’s teacher assessment, which is required to receive a license, and those that don’t pass the test can retake it as many times as they need to. The report suggests setting a higher passing score on the test.

The report also found, through its surveys, that teachers and principals both feel teachers are not sufficiently prepared to manage behavior in their classrooms, use student data to make decisions, or teach students who have special needs or are learning English.

Principals also said teachers with extensive student teaching experience were better prepared.

The report uses a new research method that linked university programs to the teachers they educate. The report then examined the test score improvement of those teachers’ students. Researchers used statistical controls for poverty, and looked at students’ test score improvement over time.

Using this method, researchers found that teachers at five of the six colleges in the study raised their students’ scores by slightly more than would be statistically expected. Only New Mexico Highlands University had teachers with average performance below what would be expected. But the report’s authors call for higher growth across the board, arguing that many students who are behind need to move their test scores significantly to get up to grade level.

Highlands had the lowest outcomes by nearly every measure in the report. Gilbert Rivera, vice president for academic affairs at Highlands, cautioned the LFC against drawing broad conclusions from the data.

“A cautionary note is that we don’t generalize what we hear and what we see in this report to an entire group of dedicated and excellent teachers we have in the state of New Mexico,” Rivera said.

The report also broke the data down in other ways that showed more differences, like sorting teachers into thirds by effectiveness, based on their students’ scores. The University of New Mexico had the highest percentage of teachers in the top third, while Highlands had the largest proportion of the bottom third.

More specifically, teachers educated at Central New Mexico Community College and Western New Mexico produced the largest gains on their students’ math scores.

In terms of reading, teachers from Eastern New Mexico University appeared to get the best results.

Some members of the legislative committee were skeptical Wednesday about the validity of such measures, and Morehead contended the calculations are too complex to be meaningful.

“It has more statistical manipulations than the bond derivative market that collapsed the economy of this country. I can’t trust it,” he said.

Others raised more specific concerns.

Richard Howell, dean of the College of Education at the University of New Mexico, pointed out that 46 percent of New Mexico’s teachers are educated outside New Mexico or in smaller in-state institutions. He said a comprehensive solution should address the entire teaching force, not half of it.

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