The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) is back in the news having released their second report on the quality of teacher preparation in America. To the surprise of nobody, they found that university based teacher preparation remains dismal. Just last year, NCTQ described teacher education as “an industry of mediocrity” in a report so riddled with errors, it would have been reasonable to assume that they would fade away – if not permanently, then at least for a few years. My favorite of their many mistakes was how they gave credit to Teachers College for having “highly selective” standards for admission to their undergraduate teacher preparation programs. Friends and colleagues affirmed how selective these programs are — they have never admitted a single student because they do not exist. Alas, the fade away did not happen, and they are back this year.
In order to understand how NCTQ could purport to make a serious contribution to teacher education while making such glaring errors and then putting them in view of the public, it is necessary to understands that the organization’s flaws are both methodological and philosophical. NCTQ is an organization that was established by the Thomas Fordham Institute and has an expressed purpose to “shake up” traditional teacher preparation. Given that they are generously funded by a laundry list of corporate reform advocates (The Gates Foundation, Edythe and Eli Broad, Carnegie Corporation, etc.) and given the presence of people like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein on their advisory board, it stands to reason that they are looking for faults. But more important is the preposterous methodology employed by NCTQ to “evaluate” programs for evidence of “quality”. Even before schools of education, looking at their bias and their proposed methods, declined to actively cooperate with them, NCTQ proposed that they would evaluate all teacher preparation programs in the country by not visiting a single program and by not speaking to or surveying a single graduate. Instead, they examine web sites and publically available documents such as course catalogs and syllabi for “evidence” of the programs covering topics that they consider essential. When programs decline to turn over internal documents for their examination, NCTQ is not above using deception to acquire them.
Such “methodology” has been aptly compared to writing a review of a restaurant by reading an online menu and making conclusions about the quality of the food preparation. NCTQ misses how instruction is delivered and evaluated in every meaningful way, but they do not seem especially concerned about that given that a number of programs have tried to correct NCTQ’s errors only to see them published anyway. This would be comical if the organization was not given uncritical coverage in influential publications. Last Fall, both Joe Nocera and Bill Keller took to the opinion pages of the New York Times and cited NCTQ’s ratings without any indication that the group is both politically biased and rife with errors. This year’s report is not being met with quite so much attention, but NPR did a very friendly interview with NCTQ President Kate Walsh with little focus on the organization’s methodology. NPR did ask one pertinent question and it was why, if teacher preparation is so dismal, don’t principals and superintendents sound the alarm that new teachers are not able to teach? Walsh replied:
“There’s a great hesitancy of public school educators to stand up to higher ed,” Walsh explains. “They’ve almost been bullied by them, and one of the things (NCTQ) is trying to work on with districts is to get them to be more assertive about their needs and to say ‘I’m not going to hire from you until you teach effective ways of reading instruction.’ “
I would like to challenge Ms. Walsh to come to New Jersey and try to find a single high school principal who is willing to admit, even off record, that he or she is intimidated by me. Go on. I’ll wait.
More seriously, that claim is bizarre because while a handful of institutions may offer grants and opportunities that are attractive to school districts, the reality is that for quality teacher preparation, I need schools more than they need me. I need partners who are willing to open up their experienced teachers’ classrooms for student teachers and for clinical internships and who are willing to mentor teacher candidates in ways that make a strong connection between their studies and their developing practice. To suggest that relationship is so lopsided as to see school districts as cowed beneath the Teacher Preparation Industrial Complex is simply strange.
I would never state that teacher preparation does not need improvement. There is always something new to learn, and there will always be an effort to make meaningful connections between theory and practice and to situate prospective teachers in classrooms where they learn from skilled mentors able to discuss practice meaningfully. But I would like to offer what it looks like to really examine and evaluate your work and to subject it to meaningful outside examination and rating. My teacher preparation program is accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), formerly the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education. Such bodies are recognized by state departments of education as having high standards for the review of teacher preparation programs and for having rigorous methods of evaluation. In preparation for their review, I have to prepare a report about our secondary students studying to become high school English teachers and submit it for review to the National Council of Teachers of English to determine how well we prepare students who are specifically seeking to be English teachers (other content areas submit similar reports to other content specialty associations). In this report, I provided complete data portraits of three cohorts of graduating candidates that showed that they knew English content, that they knew pedagogy for teaching English and that they knew how to assess students’ needs, design instruction to meet those needs and evaluate the effectiveness of their instruction. The report drew data from their coursework, lesson planning in courses, evaluations from field internships prior to student teaching from university supervisors and cooperating teachers, evaluations from their semester long student teaching experience and a Teacher Work Sample capstone project in their student teaching seminar.
The report was submitted directly to the National Council of Teaches of English where multiple reviewers read it and granted our program National Recognition as meeting high quality standards for the preparation of English teachers. This is only one of many reports written by my colleagues and represents only our preparation for an eventual site visit by CAEP where the entire unit will be evaluated. Such work is time consuming, but I have to admit that to a degree, I actually enjoy it because it helps, indeed it requires, that I take a step back from my own practice and examine artifacts that are indicative of its success or failures. The process means that I have to propose ways to use what I have learned from the evaluation process to make improvements for following cohorts, and it pushes all of us to not merely rely upon impressions of success and failure but to have substantive reasons for those assessments.
When I began teaching in 1993, I said to myself that the day I figure that I have nothing left to learn is the day that I should quit teaching. Substantive internal and external evaluation helps assure that I keep looking for things to learn.
Of course, even this is not the be all and end all of effective teacher preparation. Data driven assessment is very useful, but it also contains the danger of becoming reliant on data to the point that teaching is treated as merely a technical performance that is neatly mapable onto standards, which is untrue. There are qualities to teaching and to learning to teach that are aesthetic and which require a qualitative approach. Most teachers have a narrative of their reality in mind when they commit to becoming teachers, and they need to constantly revisit and revise that narrative in ways that allow them to understand others’ purposes and to challenge themselves and their sense of purpose. These qualities, championed by Maxine Greene, are critical for prospective teachers AND the teachers of prospective teachers, so we should embrace the role of data in our work as a tool of continuous improvement. But we should not raise it so far above all other matters that we ignore their importance as well.
Which is why in addition to the substantial work I have put in to demonstrating my program’s quality to actually qualified experts, there is another testimony that is not being currently examined by any agency in a way that captures their real importance. I know a large group of early career teachers who are simply outstanding young educators and who are doing fantastic work, both quantitatively and qualitatively, with 1000s of students across the country. They came to my classes from diverse backgrounds and with varying ideas about the critical importance of public education, but they all left having had shared experiences in university courses and in lengthy field assignments that taught them what it really means to move from being a student to being a teacher. They are remarkably interesting and talented, and they balance deep understanding of how to transform content into pedagogically powerful experiences with their students with the aesthetics of classroom community and student motivation. I am lucky to have worked with them and to continue to know of them and their teaching.
If you want to evaluate the quality of a teacher preparation program, you need to speak with and observe the teachers they graduate.