Beware of Teacher Education Rankings
After I shared some critical observations about the data collection and analysis techniques employed by the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently, I got a surprise in my inbox: a response from someone at NCTQ. He had a specific concern. This was the paragraph he took issue with:
The solutions Walsh and others have put forward...hardly address the root of the problem and are as incoherent as they are short-sighted: they want alternative routes into the classroom, which undermine the idea that teaching is professional work that requires careful preparation, even as they call for a more prescriptive emphasis on things like classroom management in the preparation courses that do exist.
I highlighted the contentious part. His response to that paragraph—and I should note here that he asked not to be identified—was that I had incorrectly stated that NCTQ is "in the tank" for alternative certification programs, which he said is not true. "While undoubtedly some in the ed reform community espouse this idea (and I understand you were not just talking about Kate Walsh here)," he said, "it is unfair to lump our work as an organization in with these voices." In fact, he continued,
...we have a number of concerns about the quality of non-traditional teacher prep programs and our findings for them are in many ways more critical than for traditional teacher prep. To imply otherwise is to misunderstand what we are advocating for: a quality, research-driven education for all teacher candidates, regardless of which pathway to the classroom they choose.
Point taken. It is not stated clearly anywhere that I could find that NCTQ is "in the tank," as he put it, for alternative certification programs. But that wasn't my point; my point was that so-called alternative routes into the classroom (not necessarily alternative certification programs—there's a difference, and at least one member of NCTQ's advisory board knows it intimately) undermine the professional preparation of other teachers. Among other things, they send the message that preparation doesn't really matter. While it isn't hard to find teachers who will claim that this is true, it's also not hard to find evidence suggesting that skipping out on teacher education doesn't make a person a better teach either. That doesn't mean that preparation always helps or hurts one way or the other, but it does suggest that variations in quality do exist.
Of course NCTQ says that it's compiling information about teacher education programs to make sure people can tell the good ones from the bad ones. The question is: what makes a teacher education program good enough to warrant a high grade from the folks at NCTQ? The short answer is that programs making an effort to implement NCTQ's agenda, which includes such criteria as explicitly focusing on classroom management, focusing on "scientifically based methods of reading instruction," and providing math preparation "resembling the practices of high performing nations" are the ones who get the best scores. And there aren't that many of them. As of 2014, only 107 out of 1,668 programs surveyed by NCTQ made the organization's list of Top Ranked Programs. That's barely more than 6%. Those are No Child Left Behind numbers.
Does this mean that teacher educators don't care about classroom management or research-based practice or world class education? I doubt it. It just means that they're essentially being given a test on something they weren't taught. And for a reason, apparently.
See, NCTQ's board is populated by some awfully big names in what might be called the education deregulation and accountability movement: players like Kopp, Hanushek, Hess, Klein, and Finn sit on the organization's board of directors or advisory board. The chair of NCTQ's board of directors, John L. Winn, was once described by the St. Petersburg Times as "[maybe] the most important person Floridians have never heard of." I'll the Times explain that statement: "Hate the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test? Hate school grades? How about private school vouchers, third-grade retention or the elimination of race-based admissions in Florida universities? Blame Gov. Jeb Bush first. Then blame Winn." Seems like Florida has been at the business end of a Winn: lose proposition.
Needless to say, NCTQ's leadership is well versed in rattling the so-called education establishment. This is, in and of itself, no problem at all; I, for one, am all for asking the hard questions and doing whatever it takes to shake people out of their complacency, and our schools, as I say over and over again, are always ripe for change. But I have to ask: what propels that change? Whose agenda is being pursued, and for whose benefit? Those can be tough questions to answer.
In the case of NCTQ the agenda appears to be centered on radically transforming the way teachers are educated, if not doing away with it altogether. The agenda may be couched in terms that seem innocuous enough—managing student behavior and using evidence-based practices and providing a world class education don't seem like political choices—but in fact all of these ideas exist in contested terrain. After all, student behavior only has to be managed if it's problematic; a scientific consensus on reading instruction has hardly been reached; and what works in other countries is never guaranteed to work here. These criteria may matter to NCTQ but that doesn't necessarily mean they should be proritized by the rest of us.
What criteria should matter, then? To me, teaching and learning should primarily be governed by the students and teachers involved in it, not by outsiders. Yes, accreditation and standards are important—but professional accreditation agencies are associations of peers providing feedback to each other while showing respect for the contexts in which each others' programs exist. Grading teacher education programs on the basis of what professors put in their syllabuses is kind of like grading kids based on what they wore to school today. Okay, that's not exactly fair—a syllabus should be carefully planned and should reflect the goals of the course. It's more like asking kids on the first day of school what they expect to learn that year and then failing them later for learning something else. Or it's like judging an entire organization based on the views of its board members. You get my point.
I'm not trying to denigrate the work of NCTQ, although I admit it's hard for me to support "research" on classroom practices that relies so heavily on secondhand source material. I'm simply saying that useful conclusions about teacher education programs can be drawn by researchers truly interested in improving them. It's not as if there isn't enough data to go around. Teacher education programs are constantly reporting about their work. They prepare reports for accreditors and they compile data to show that they comply with federal law. The laws and regulations governing teacher education programs ensure that students receive equal access to educational services; that certain curricular standards are met; that budgets are handled appropriately; that faculty are highly qualified in the fields in which they teach; and hold programs accountable in a hundred other ways. But NCTQ doesn't seem to be interested in this data, mainly because it does nothing to advance NCTQ's agenda. That's because this is about politics, folks, not education.
So I'll say it one last time: I'm not reflexively opposed to what NCTQ is doing in terms of its advocacy for better teacher education if, in fact, better teacher education is what NCTQ is after, and no offense to the folks there who care deeply about improving teacher quality. I'm certainly not calling them evil or stupid, even if that's the custom these days (noting here that the NCTQ person who contacted me did not call me evil or stupid, either). Are there bad teacher educators and bad teacher education programs out there? Sure there are. There are some good ones too—and I'd wager that more than 6% of them fit into that category. How about judging those programs on their terms and seeing where that gets us? After all, there are some good teachers out there too—and until pretty recently almost all of them attended traditional teacher education programs. They must have been doing something right.