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The top-ranked teacher education program doesn't have classes

There are no lecture halls at this teachers' college.
There are no lecture halls at this teachers' college.
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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The best preparation program in the country for future high school teachers, according to new US News and World Report rankings, happens at an online university you probably haven't heard of where students don't take any classes.

The Western Governors University's number-one spot surprised even the National Council on Teacher Quality, the advocacy group that worked with US News on the rankings. The high marks are not, however, a surprise to the nonprofit online university's many fans — one of whom is President Obama.

Western Governors does away with many features of traditional higher education in favor of measuring competency: what students know and can do. Its supporters hope this could make college cheaper, help students graduate, and ensure they actually learn something along the way.

How college with no classes works

Western Governors, one of several colleges offering this kind of education, doesn't look like what most people imagine when they think of "college." That's not just because it's online — the university has done away with lectures, discussion sections, midterms and even grades.

Instead, students take a pre-test for each subject area they have to learn. They're given a mentor with a graduate degree in the field they're studying and access to textbooks, tutorials, and other resources. Eventually, they're assessed on how well they understand the concepts. They need about the equivalent of a B on the assessment to move on.

What does this look like in practice? The for-profit Capella University offers a business major based on similar principles that gives a good example. Here's what one course looks like when broken down into competencies:


"You just allow students to move through it at their own pace, and check off the stuff they already know," says Amy Laitinen, deputy director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation.

Some assessments are multiple-choice, short-answer and essay tests with the college watching over a webcam. Other assignments are more creative: Students at Western Governors' teachers' college write lesson plans and complete a student teaching program where they're evaluated on their classroom skills and management several times.

The self-paced approach is popular with adult students, who like that they can do the work on their own schedule and don't have to waste time relearning concepts they already understand. The average student in the Western Governors teachers' college is about 36, says Philip Schmidt, the college's dean. Seventy to 80 percent are the first in their families to attend college or come from low-income or minority backgrounds.

The approach: 'Think you know it? Prove it'

Western Governors University started in 1997, supported by 19 governors working together on distance learning. But growth was slow, and when the teachers' college set up shop in 2003, skepticism in the education world was rampant.

While online masters' degrees for teachers already in the classroom were growing, online programs to train novices were rare. The idea of eliminating traditional college classes often met with scorn.

Since then, Schmidt said, there has been a "dramatic, drastic change." That's partly because the Western Governors methods are getting more popular as the United States pushes to get more students to graduate college.

Competency-based programs appeal for a few reasons. They can be fast: the first graduate of College for America, a competency-based degree program at Southern New Hampshire University, took just under 100 days to finish his associate's degree. The speed, and the reduced overhead costs on staffing, can make the education cheaper: Western Governors charges flat tuition of about $6,000 per year for its teachers college.

Meanwhile, requiring students to prove that they've mastered skills seems to provide some protection against the usual concern about a cheap and fast solution: that it cuts corners on quality.

The approach can make an impenetrable academic transcript understandable by making it clear what students have actually learned to do. At Northern Arizona University, which offers a program much like Western Governors', students are given a transcript that shows what they learned to do:


In contrast, "traditional higher education is really a black box," Laitinen says. "You know folks spent the requisite amount of time with their butts in the seat."

The rise to No. 1

US News college rankings are controversial in general, and the teacher preparation program rankings are especially so. The National Council on Teacher Quality is a harsh critic of many colleges of education, saying that they admit students with poor academic qualifications and don't prepare them well for the classroom. (This year, they were equally hard on other routes to the classroom, such as Teach for America. Most of those programs performed poorly in their analysis too.)

The group looks at whether teacher preparation programs refuse to admit students with below a B average in high school; whether they require high levels of knowledge in the subjects teachers will teach; whether they teach students to plan lessons and manage classrooms; and whether they include strong student teaching programs, particularly in districts that have high test scores despite high poverty rates.

Western Governors stood out for its high marks across the board, in part because of its student teaching program, the group said.

Will more colleges imitate the model?

Western Governors University was an early pioneer, but other colleges have more recently embraced its model of online programs that award credits based on what students know. Meanwhile, even in more traditional corners of academia, the notion that "competencies" should be clearly defined and measured is taking hold.

The president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, which includes many liberal arts colleges in its membership, has argued strongly for measuring competencies. Colleges should define what students learn, evaluate them on it, and award credit accordingly, she wrote.

Some colleges are moving in that direction. Lipscomb University, a private college in Tennessee, is evaluating what new adult students already know and awarding credit accordingly before they enroll in class.

At the education conferences where Western Governors was once scorned, other colleges are now trying to figure out how they can adapt part of its program, says Schmidt.

"Many, many many people are far more interested because they want to see what pieces of what we do they can also do," he says. "I don't mean it to sound smug, but I think people have come to believe that by and large what we do is good for the profession."

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