Des Moine Register
One in five prospective teachers at Iowa’s public universities would have been denied admission last year to teaching programs under guidelines proposed in the governor’s education reform blueprint, a Des Moines Register review of data shows.
College students who apply to the state’s 32 teacher preparation schools would need a minimum grade-point average of 3.0 — a B average — under the proposal that was unveiled in October as part of Gov. Terry Branstad’s education blueprint.
The change would give Iowa, which now has no minimum grade-point average requirement, one of the most selective teacher preparation programs in the United States. The logic behind the move, according to supporters: Tougher standards would yield better teachers for Iowa youngsters.
“This is the most important profession in our society,” said Jason Glass, Iowa Department of Education director. “It’s the profession that makes all other professions possible. We should hold a very high standard.”
The proposed change would also be one of the first serious attempts by a state to mimic policies of educational powerhouses like Singapore, whose students routinely trounce American children on international math and science assessments.
But some college officials and others contend there’s no proof that a grade-point average early in a student’s college career will predict professional success. They worry that the standard could block quality teachers from the profession.
Legislators, who must approve the change, will have to decide if turning away hundreds of aspiring teachers each year — including a disproportionate number of minorities — is an acceptable price to pay for more stringent standards.
Nearly 1,600 students applied for admission last year to teacher preparation programs at Iowa’s three public universities. Twenty percent of those students — about 320 — had a grade-point average below 3.0 on 4.0 scale, a review of data provided to the Register shows.
The University of Northern Iowa and University of Iowa would have rejected fewer than 20 percent of students who sought entry into education programs. Iowa State would have had to turn away 30 percent of students. UNI had 942 students enter its education programs, while the U of I and ISU together admitted 628 students to similar programs.
“Those numbers provide evidence that we need to be more selective about who we’re letting into our teacher education programs,” Glass said.
The Register asked officials at Iowa’s 32 teaching programs for information about their students. The three public universities were required by state law to provide the data. Of private colleges not subject to Iowa’s public information laws, only two provided enrollment information; 27 others refused.
The data provided by Simpson College and Northwestern College showed that 11 percent and 14 percent of students, respectively, enrolled last fall in teacher preparation programs had grade-point averages below 3.0.
Glass said he hasn’t examined the data for private teacher education programs, but he expects it to mirror that of the public universities.
The new requirements would be phased in to avoid a sudden teacher shortage, Glass said. Reforms would also include recruitment strategies such as student loan forgiveness, scholarships and programs that make it easier for professionals in other fields to become teachers, he said.
Any admissions changes to teacher preparation programs should also include a tougher initial screening assessment, and consider personality traits like perseverance and leadership, Glass said. A detailed proposal will be presented to the Legislature after it convenes in January, he said.
James Cibulka, head of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education in Washington, D.C., applauded the inclusion of measures beyond grade-point average. More than two decades of results from Teach For America, a program that trains top college graduates to teach in high-need schools, prove personality traits are an important factor in creating successful teachers, he said.
He also commended the focus on recruitment, something he said is often left out of reforms. Offering incentives like scholarships can help recruit a diverse pool of student teachers, even as selectivity increases, he said.
However, Cibulka said there’s no definitive evidence to show which academic measures are the best measuring sticks. That’s why, if reforms are enacted, it will be important for Iowa to track which students go on to lead high-performing classrooms, he said.
Still, research shows high-performing school systems around the globe are staffed by teachers from highly selective preparation programs, said Arthur McKee, managing director of teacher preparation studies at the National Council on Teacher Quality in Washington, D.C.
Those school systems in Finland, South Korea and Singapore require prospective teachers to place among the top third of their college classes in a measure that combines standardized tests and grade-point average, according to a widely cited 2010 study from McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm. In the United States, 23 percent of new teachers finish among the top third nationally in the same measure, the study found.
That lack of selectivity in the U.S. is why state education officials say Iowa should insist on tougher standards, and consider grade-point average exceptions in only rare cases.
“If you can’t get a B average, it suggests there may be some difficulty mastering the basic content you need to be successful,” said Linda Fandel, a special assistant on education to Branstad.
Uncertainty over what works best to produce great teachers concerns college educators, who fear writing off students too early. They say students — particularly among those from disadvantaged backgrounds — tend to earn their lowest grades as freshmen, and steadily improve until graduation.
At UNI, 36 percent of Latino student teachers would be excluded under the proposal, vs. 21 percent of blacks and 18 percent of white students, officials said.
“When we look at our Latino students, we are making an assumption that there may be some language barriers,” said Dwight Watson, dean of UNI’s College of Education. “I wouldn’t want to eliminate African-American and Latino candidates at those percentages.”
Grades at the point of admission offer marginal insight into students, said Joen Rottler, education dean at Ashford University in Clinton and president of the Iowa Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
“It may indicate very little — just that the student needs to mature a little more as a learner, perhaps develop better study skills and organizational skills,” Rottler said.
That’s why college educators are lobbying for alternatives to an ironclad minimum 3.0 grade-point average for admission to teacher education programs.
They say measuring grade-point average upon graduation or after a full year in a program gives students more time to reach their potential. Colleges could also create exceptions for special cases, or make grade-point average one of several requirements for admission, college educators said.
This would allow students who meet most standards other than grade-point average to enter the program, they said.
For example, Simpson College’s 2.75 grade-point average requirement kicks in after a student’s junior year, said Jackie Crawford, the college’s education dean. Graduates of the program this year had a median grade-point average of 3.6, which is comparable to figures reported by the state’s public universities. She noted that Teach for America asks for a candidate’s grade-point average upon graduation.
“I think we have a selective program and do a good job of identifying students who are highly qualified and competent,” Crawford said.
Pamela White, ISU College of Human Sciences dean, suggested a two-tiered admissions system in which students with a grade-point average above a certain level are automatically admitted. School officials could interview remaining applicants for further evaluation. This would allow exceptions for students who show an exceptional desire to be a teacher, or an ability to connect with students, she said.
To push schools toward selectivity, state education officials said they’re willing to negotiate the details and consider alternative proposals.
But Glass, the state’s education department director, said requiring a grade-point average standard should be included because colleges need to establish stronger academic standards.
Iowa’s current rules for teacher preparation programs were adopted in 2001. An amendment in 2007 increased student teaching to a minimum of 14 weeks — the only specific standard — and required schools to establish an initial screening test. But each college chooses what test to use and what minimum score to set.