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Tom | June 20, 2013

NCTQ Teacher Prep Review

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Making-college-decisionBy Tom

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.

Comments

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I found your points about a rating versus accreditation system to be particularly important. There are so many potential teachers, that because of geographical or financial reasons, have a very limited choice of teacher preparation programs to attend. An accreditation system would tell these future teachers that their program met a certain standard, while a points/rating system would not be particularly helpful, as you note.

This is also the reason that, for now at least, I am still very much in favor of a teacher prep requirement like the edTPA. Teacher preparation programs (even NCATE accredited ones) do vary a lot in quality: http://www.storiesfromschool.org/2013/04/inappropriate-jokes-and-student-teacher-evaluation.html

An evaluation like the edTPA, which is reflective, performance based, and job-embedded, goes a long way towards ensuring that teacher prep program candidates have met a certain standard.

Good points, Mark. As for your comment that it's too easy to become a teacher, that might be true; sometimes I wonder if raising teacher salaries would make the field more competitive. That's a purely mental experiment, however; we can barely pay the current salaries.

I really appreciate this perspective, Tom, because it tempers my knee-jerk reaction...which was to agree that teacher prep programs are not consistently producing teachers ready for the profession.

Because you made me stop to think (how dare you!) I realize that like so many other aspects of education, there is tremendous variability which is rooted squarely in the human factor. In one respect, it goes back to the old debate as to whether a good teacher is "born" or "built." I think that if you take an individual with strong natural dispositions necessary for teaching, run them through a lackluster program, and they'll still eventually develop into a strong teacher--disposition trumps training. But, I do think that a good program can arm an incoming teacher with intentional strategies that can help him/her be a good teacher even if the instincts aren't there (yet).

One thing I can agree with: it is too easy to get a teaching certificate. Whether it is in a brick-and-mortar or online, I do feel that there is some hint of truth in the interpretation that education becomes a fall-back career for those who cannot cut it elsewhere. It happens, we've probably all seen. I do not necessarily believe that there needs to be stricter entrance requirements for teacher-prep candidates, but I think the exit requirements can make a difference, and hesitate to make a generalization about the exit standard since there is so much variation between programs. One more note about the entrance requirements: Some of the best teachers are those for whom school did not come easy, which leads them to empathize so well with their struggling learners. That empathy has to be supported with good preparation and early career support.

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