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Missouri wants teachers trained in the science of reading, but many programs don't teach it

A third grade student looks towards a phonetic alphabet on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022, at KIPP Victory Academy in the Central West End.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A third grade student looks towards a phonetic alphabet on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022, at KIPP Victory Academy in the Central West End.

Most elementary teacher preparation programs across the country and in Missouri do not adequately focus on the science of reading, according to a new review from the National Council on Teacher Quality. In fact, Missouri's programs were among the worst in the nation — with the exception of UMKC.

As Missouri education leaders try to push schools to teach reading in a more effective way, a new report says many of the state’s teacher preparation programs aren’t focused on research-backed principles that effectively teach kids to read.

Most elementary teacher preparation programs across the country and in Missouri do not adequately focus on the science of reading, according to the new review from the National Council on Teacher Quality.

The science of reading is a blanket term for what decades of research has found about how students learn to read. There are five core components that experts say teachers should be focusing on: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. Research has shown kids need explicit instruction in these concepts to learn to read.

In this new report, NCTQ looked at factors like instructional time, textbooks and tests from teacher preparation programs across the country. The organization gave letter grades to college and university programs based on how much their elementary reading instruction incorporated the science of reading and whether those programs included teaching methods that are not supported by research. Nationally, the review found just a quarter of programs adequately address the five core components of reading.

“We found that there's a lot of work to be done in teacher preparation across the nation to ensure that aspiring teachers know how to teach reading aligned to the science,” said Heather Peske, president of NCTQ.

Peske said Missouri’s programs were among the worst in the nation; half of the Missouri programs that responded to NCTQ’s requests for data received an F while only one received an A — the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Illinois’ programs received similarly low marks.

However, most teacher prep programs in Missouri did not participate in the review. Andrew Butler, Washington University chair and associate professor of education, said in a written statement that Wash U’s “teacher education programs are informed by science” but that the school did not participate in this review because of past criticism of NCTQ.

“The approach and methodology used by NCTQ has been criticized by the nation’s leading experts on teacher preparation, and as a result many teacher education programs locally and nationally have declined to participate,” Butler said. “Nevertheless, we remain open to participating in NCTQ reviews in the future.”

In response, a spokesperson for NCTQ defended the organization’s approach and said it did significant work to develop the methodology for this report, including considering feedback received during a comment period and consulting an expert advisory panel and a technical advisory group, the members of which are listed in the review.

Other local teacher prep programs cited multiple reasons for declining to participate. St. Louis University School of Education Dean Gary Ritter said his institution did not participate because of the time and resources NCTQ was requiring. A University of Missouri-Columbia spokesperson said the university declined a sunshine request from NCTQ because its syllabi are closed due to copyright laws, but said “Mizzou’s preparation of reading teachers and professionals is guided by the science of reading.” Although Harris-Stowe State University did not participate, Dean of the College of Education Marrix Seymore said the university also teaches the science of reading to aspiring educators.

As state education leaders push schools toward the science of reading, they are also looking for ways to get educator preparation programs on board. Tracy Hinds, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education deputy commissioner, said DESE has been focused on this topic for a couple of years.

“There's always room for growth and improvement, and we are not where we need to be,” Hinds said. “But we have definitely moved the needle and put procedures and foundations in place to get us moving in the direction that we need to.”

A new set of laws went into effect this year and last year to promote the science of reading in Missouri schools. The state is undertaking a big effort to retrain teachers who are already in classrooms. DESE has also had about 100 faculty members from preparation programs around the state participate in the same training, called LETRS. Another new policy requires teacher prep programs to include science of reading concepts and establishes a new oversight board. This NCTQ research was largely conducted before these new policies took effect.

“We are strengthening our partnerships, we are strengthening our awareness, we are strengthening our collaboration with our [Educator Preparation Programs] so that we are all aligned with the importance and significance of the science of reading,” Hinds said.

This new report also looked at whether programs were still teaching reading concepts that have been debunked — telling students to guess a word if they can’t read it, for example. NCTQ found more than 40% of programs across the country are still teaching multiple practices that are “contrary to the research.”

Right now, many teachers in both St. Louis and around the country are trying to unlearn practices that are not effective, said Laura Vilines, founder and executive director of St. Louis Teacher Residency, which certifies and prepares teachers for high-need schools in St. Louis. The organization has spent the past two years looking at its elementary reading coursework to make sure it is backed by research.

“We're having a reckoning right now as a profession to really take ownership over the fact that as a profession, we've actually been getting this wrong and haven't been serving students,” Vilines said.

But Vilines said the conversation around strengthening educator training has to include the broader challenges the teaching profession is facing, especially around teacher shortages.

“We can make changes in what's happening in the educator preparation space, but if that's not also accompanied by policy changes to make the teaching profession more attractive for folks to enter this incredible profession and then support them while they're there, we're not going to get to the end outcome that we want, which is having more students receiving really high-quality reading instruction in our state,” Vilines said.

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

I report on agriculture and rural issues for Harvest Public Media and am the Senior Environmental Reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. You can reach me at kgrumke@stlpr.org.
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