The National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) just came out with a review of America’s education schools. And it’s caused quite a stir. I spent most of the first day of my summer vacation sifting through it, and I’ve got several reactions. But before I get there, a quick word about my own perspective: For the past eight years, I have served on the Board of Examiners for the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). In that capacity I visit two colleges of education each year, collaborating on a standards-based report, which eventually leads to the accreditation. (Or, in some cases, doesn’t) NCATE accreditation isn’t universal; many states require it, although some states – like Washington – let colleges decide whether or not they want to pursue it. Every state, however, does have some form of standards-based accreditation for higher ed programs.
Now for the NCTQ review.
First of all, it appears that the methodology consisted mainly of looking at syllabi and textbooks to see what the colleges teach their candidates. They also looked at the qualifications of their mentor teachers and the grade point average of the students accepted into their programs. What they didn’t look at was the actual performance of the candidates and graduates of the programs. This is important, especially when you consider that NCTQ is primarily an education reform organization – not a research center – and they have focused extensively on teacher quality as measured by teacher output.
Besides that, their methodology – flawed as it is – appears to have been misused. Linda Darling-Hammonds points out several glaring mistakes in this scathing rebuttal. This alone should be enough to thoroughly discount NCTQ’s review.
My main problem with the review, however, lies in how it differs from an accreditation. When a program comes up for review, the stakeholders basically have to present evidence that they’re meeting a set of standards. Reviewers check that evidence and decide whether it’s sufficient. Throughout the process, there is a continuous conversation about the evidence; a conversation that includes faculty, partners, candidates and alumni. It is totally transparent. NCTQ’s process was anything but transparent. Because of that, many schools refused to cooperate. Even those which did were not invited to present rebuttal evidence. The result is a useless scorecard that ranks colleges of education according to the “points” they earned.
This brings up another issue. In my experience on site visits, it seems that most college students pursuing a career in education come from middle-class backgrounds, and lack the wherewithal to “shop” for the best education college. More often than not, they attend a state school where they qualify for resident tuition, or they attend a nearby private school on a need-based scholarship. Indeed, many teaching candidates didn’t even decide on an education degree until they were well into their college career.
That’s why the accreditation process is far preferable to a points system. An accreditation process insures that any school is up to snuff: if it isn’t, it has to shut down. A point system – especially one that relies on flawed and poorly-executed methodology – results in college students needlessly questioning the quality of the only school they can afford to attend.
I’m not arguing that every accredited college is perfect. Far from it. In fact, most NCATE visits, and the reports generated by the visitors, result in several “Areas for Improvement.” The institution then has to focus on those areas before their next visit, or risk non-accreditation.
One more thing; and this is important. In my experience, there is far more variation in the quality of faculty within any institution than there is in the quality between institutions. That goes double for the quality of their graduates; the best graduate from the worst college is probably a much better teacher than the worst graduate from the best college. If you’re a teacher, you already know this. Most of us have no idea where our colleagues went to school. We don’t know because we don’t care. We don’t care because it doesn’t matter: you’re as good as the lessons you teach, pure and simple.
NCTQ’s review has stirred the pot, no question about it. Ultimately it might result in a general improvement of teacher preparation. But because of their sloppy methodology and opaque process, it is far more trouble than it’s worth.