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| Courtesy Western Governors University Western Governors University students attend commencement ceremonies in Salt Lake City in 2013. The online university's undergraduate secondary teacher education program has been ranked No. 1 in the country by the National Council on Teacher Quality.
Utah online college No. 1 in nation for teacher education
Education » Western Governors University earns top position.
First Published Jun 17 2014 12:25 pm • Last Updated Jun 17 2014 09:20 pm

The nation’s top-ranked college, when it comes to preparing secondary teachers for the classroom, isn’t some historic institution with ivy climbing its brick walls.

Rather, it’s a 17-year-old, Utah-based college that’s all online, according to a Tuesday report.

At a glance

Report ranks Utah teacher prep programs

A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality ranked Utah teacher preparation programs. Below are some of the rankings:

Highest ranked elementary programs (national rank):

Western Governors University, graduate (16)

University of Utah, undergraduate (47)

Utah Valley University, undergraduate (101)

Utah State University, undergraduate (117)

Brigham Young University, undergraduate (165)

Highest ranked secondary programs (national rank):

Western Governors University, undergraduate (1)

Utah Valley University, undergraduate (113)

University of Utah, undergraduate (230)

Utah State University, undergraduate (265)

Dixie State College of Utah, undergraduate (356)

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The National Council on Teacher Quality decided Western Governors University has the No. 1 undergraduate preparation program in the country for teachers going into secondary education. The school’s graduate teaching program for teachers going into elementary education was ranked 16th in the country.

The report covered more than 1,600 programs at more than 800 institutions nationwide — mostly traditional schools.

The University of Utah’s undergraduate elementary teaching program was ranked 47th; various programs at Utah Valley University, Utah State University, Brigham Young University and Dixie State University also ranked among the top few hundred programs.

Three Utah undergraduate programs ranked in the bottom half nationally, including secondary programs at Weber State and BYU, and the elementary program at Dixie State.

The report ranked the programs on selectivity and how well they prepare students to teach reading, math and students learning English. It also ranked them based on how they teach students about classroom management, lesson planning, assessments and data.

And it looked at graduates’ effectiveness in the classroom, rigor and how well they prepare students to teach traditionally underserved kids, among other things.

The rankings come at a time when many have criticized teacher colleges, saying they don’t prepare educators well enough, leading to mediocre academic performance among K-12 students.

But Philip Schmidt, a Western Governors’ vice president and dean of the school’s teacher’s college, said it’s unfair to generalize about education schools. He said many are terrific and some need to improve.

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He said he believes such generalizations may grow out of frustration with K-12 student achievement.

"Unfortunately the data is not what we as Americans would like it to be and people always look for scapegoats in this situation and there are two obvious ones," Schmidt said, citing teachers and schools of education. He said it would be more effective for schools, universities and states to work together to ensure quality systems.

Schmidt credits Western Governors’ success to a number of factors, including its competency-based approach. That means it focuses on making sure students know their stuff, rather than requiring class attendance. A student who is already proficient in a subject, for example, can take an assessment and possibly skip parts or all of the class while still earning the credit.

That can be useful for education students coming from other professions. On average, the teacher college’s students are in their mid-30s, Schmidt said. Students must still student-teach in actual classrooms.

He also credited the school’s success to the way it aligns its programs to standards, and to its faculty members who mentor students.

Mary Burbank, assistant dean for teacher education at the University of Utah’s education school, attributed her program’s success to its focus on math, among other factors. The U.’s undergraduate elementary teacher prep program was the only other one in the state to rank in the top 50 nationally.

Burbank said students in that program, in addition to taking general education mathematics requirements, take courses through the university’s mathematics department.

"They take quite a few courses that I think exceed many folks both locally and nationally," Burbank said.

She said all students must also earn special endorsements to teach students learning the English language.

Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, Utah Education Association president, said good teacher preparation programs focus on getting aspiring educators into classrooms with mentors early in their training. She also said quality programs focus on teaching future educators to work with diverse student populations, make data-driven decisions and demonstrate knowledge and skills.

"I do think there are many more requirements for our candidates coming out of universities now than there ever have been," she said.

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