The vast majority of the 1,430 education programs that prepare the nation’s K-12 teachers are mediocre, according to a first-ever ranking that immediately touched off a firestorm.

Released Tuesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based advocacy group, the rankings are part of a $5 million project funded by major U.S. foundations. Education secretaries in 21 states have endorsed the report, but some universities and education experts quickly assailed the review as incomplete and inaccurate.

Programs at Furman, Lipscomb, Ohio State and Vanderbilt universities received the only “four-star” ratings, while some programs, including at George Washington University, received no stars, eliciting a warning from the council for prospective students to avoid them.

While debate swirls about the validity of the ratings of individual schools, there is broad agreement among educators and public officials — from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to governors to unions — that the country is failing to adequately train the 200,000 people who become teachers each year.

“We don’t know how to prepare teachers,” said Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University and author of a scathing critique of teacher preparation. “We can’t decide whether it’s a craft or a profession. Do you need a lot of education as you would in a profession, or do you need a little bit and then learn on the job, like a craft? I don’t know of any other profession that’s so uncertain about how to educate their professionals.”

(The Washington Post)

Many education schools suffer from the same maladies, Levine said. “Admission standards are low, no connection between clinical work and academic work and some of the faculty haven’t been in a school for years,” he said.

The topic has gained urgency, with new research that shows teacher quality is the single most important factor inside a classroom that affects student learning. As baby boomers retire, classrooms increasingly have newly minted teachers at the helm.

Amy Grelck, 26, thought she was ready to teach after graduating from the education program at Illinois Wesleyan University in 2009. Then she stepped into a fifth-grade classroom.

“I was in shock, really,” said Grelck, whose undergraduate semester as a student teacher in an affluent school did not prepare her for her first full-time job teaching in a high-poverty classroom in Chambord, Ill. “I really loved the [university] program, while I was in it. But I really felt like I needed more of the realities of teaching. I had quite a bit of low-achieving, struggling students that I didn’t know what to do with.”

Grelck was faced with a litany of things she didn’t know: How to group kids by ability and teach them math simultaneously; how to manage behavioral problems; how to use data, such as her students’ test scores, to tweak her instruction.

She leaned heavily on more experienced teachers at her school who offered coaching and encouragement. “Nothing can really prepare you for that first year,” Grelck said. “But it definitely could have been a lot better if my program had been more focused on the realities that I was going to face.”

Some other professions have standardized systems and national exams to ensure consistency. Medical students, for example, undergo a four-year program and a residency before taking a state licensing exam and national board exams, all designed so new physicians have the same core knowledge and practical skills.

But teacher preparation programs vary from school to school, and each state sets its own licensing requirements. Most programs are run by universities. Others are run by nonprofit groups or school districts. They each have their own standards of admission and completion requirements.

A 2007 McKinsey study found that 23 percent of U.S. teachers graduated in the top third of their class, while that figure was 100 percent in Singapore, Finland and other nations whose students lead the world on international exams.

To improve quality, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has proposed a rigorous professional exam for teachers, akin to the bar exam for lawyers, and wants universities to get more selective, requiring a minimum 3.0 grade-point average to enroll in teacher preparation programs and to graduate. The effort has stalled because of a lack of funding, AFT President Randi Weingarten said.

About half the states have agreed to raising admission standards to education programs, but only a handful have acted.

Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said the organization developed the ratings because it was frustrated by too much talk and not enough action.

“Our feeling is if we gave consumers more information, we could help to drive business and students to high-performing programs and away from low-performing ones,” Walsh said, noting that the ratings reflect the content of what is taught and not the quality of instruction. “This is a market strategy.”

The review was funded by 62 organizations, led by the Carnegie Corporation and the Broad Foundation. The National Council on Teacher Quality analyzed admissions standards and inspected syllabuses, textbooks and course requirements and rated 1,430 programs on a scale of zero to four stars. The organization did not visit the schools or interview students and faculty.

“Take it with a salt shaker full of salt,” said Linda Darling Hammond, an expert on teacher education at Stanford University.

Bob Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, which received one and a half stars, said he would study the review to see whether U-Va. could learn from it. “Almost everyone who’s working in teacher preparation now explicitly acknowledges we need to do a better job,” Pianta said. Still, the review is limited, he said. “This is a paper audit, really. It doesn’t dive into whether schools are implementing these programs very well or students are learning what they should be learning.”

George Washington University was among the lowest-ranked programs in the country. It received this warning from the council: “No prospective teacher candidates should entrust their preparation to these programs because candidates are unlikely to obtain much return on their investment.”

Like many other universities, George Washington did not cooperate with the organization, leaving the reviewers to collect syllabuses and course requirements through unofficial channels. “It is important to note that although [GWU] did not participate in this project, our faculty, staff, and students welcome the opportunity to study the report to see what can be useful to us as we strive toward continued excellence in the preparation of future teachers,” the dean of the program, Michael Feuer, wrote in a statement.

Joshua P. Starr, the superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, said he is concerned that the new ratings amount to teacher bashing.

“I would imagine that not all PhD programs in molecular biology are the same and not all law schools are the same,” Starr said. “Teacher prep is like any other part of American education. There is great variability. . . . I get concerned about the drumbeat of debasing anything related to teachers these days.”

One problem in trying to prepare teachers is the fact that the country hasn’t come to a consensus on what students need to learn, Starr said. Montgomery County spends $28,000 on each new teacher for the first three years in professional development, an investment Starr calls “start-up costs.”

“I have not met a young teacher coming out saying, ‘I know everything,’ ” Starr said. “They want to learn, they want to be in an environment where they can be supported. It’s up to us to take these great people and help them do their best work.”