Equity Issues

Stronger Prep Pathways Could Help More Teacher Candidates Pass Licensing Exams

A new "action guide" from the National Council on Teacher Quality provides detailed steps that teacher preparation programs can take to strengthen and diversify the teacher workforce. It serves as a follow-on to the report, "A Fair Chance: Simple steps to strengthen and diversify the teacher workforce," published in February, which found that more than half of elementary teacher candidates can't pass their licensing exams because of inadequate preparation.

The challenges for diversifying the teacher workforce are "systemic," the report stated. While 85 percent of nursing candidates pass on their first exam attempt and 69 percent of civil engineers do so, the pass rate for the content licensing test taken by teacher candidates is just 46 percent. The pass rate is 38 percent for black candidates and 57 percent for Hispanic candidates. As a result, the report noted, "many of the candidates of color who enroll in teacher prep programs cannot successfully earn a standard teaching license."

A big problem is that teacher candidates have gaps in their content knowledge, leading to poor test performance. For example, NCTQ found that a tenth of teacher preparation programs don't require any aligned coursework in English language arts; and three-quarters of undergrad programs don't cover the breadth of math required for elementary grades.

According to the organization, much of the core content needed by elementary teachers falls into four subjects and some 14 course areas, which align to content in states' various elementary content licensure tests:

  • English language arts, covering composition, children's literature, world literature and American literature;

  • Elementary math, covering numbers and operation, algebra, geometry and data analysis;

  • Social studies, covering early and modern U.S. history, ancient and modern world history and world geography; and

  • Science, and specifically, biology, physics and earth sciences and chemistry.

And although music and art aren't included on those licensing tests for the most part, these are still subjects where elementary teachers "should have some understanding and appreciation," which means their college careers should include courses in each.

The action guide encouraged education training programs to seek courses that meet four characteristics:

  • Attainability; the course could "feasibly" be taught in a single semester, rather than being so broad as to cover topics in insufficient detail;

  • Breadth, to give the teacher candidate a "full range of content" he or she might need to know;

  • Relevance, particularly to provide coverage of topics most likely to show up in the elementary classroom; and

  • Focus on content, not pedagogy. For example, a "physics for educators" course would probably include a "heavy focus" on how to teach alongside the content, which means an aspiring teacher won't receive "a full semester of science content."

While other courses lacking these characteristics "can still offer value for teacher candidates," there may not be room in the future teacher's schedule for them. As the guide put it, "Teacher candidates must start from a strong foundation in a topic, and so preparation programs must first make sure that candidates' core knowledge is in place."

The guide included a list of 16 undergraduate teacher preparation programs that have strong content requirements.

In most cases, the authors wrote, the institution will have the relevant coursework available, which means teacher prep programs don't need to create new courses. They just need to adjust their requirements to point people to more relevant options. Programs should also set parameters on which courses from the general education menu teacher candidates should be allowed to take as part of satisfying a given requirement. Four times out of five, the guide asserted, when elementary candidates take a course that's well designed to their needs, it's because of a course requirement "set by the program and not by the institution."

The complete action guide is openly available on the NCTQ website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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