Last Tuesday, the National Council on Teacher Quality released a report rating the quality of over 2000 teacher education programs in the United States. Their rationale behind the ratings was that while teachers get a lot of heat from the current accountability movement, it would logically make sense to take a step back and see how teachers are being prepared to work in the classroom. As a basic premise, I think it’s a good one. I learned a lot from my time in graduate school, but there were certain experiences that I felt were somewhat lacking. Even so, when I look back on the things that I wish I’d done differently when I was getting my education degree, my choice of school isn’t one of them.
Having said that, I probably would have been a lot more thoughtful in what program I enrolled in had I had the kind of information that’s in the NCTQ’s report. The NCTQ made their ratings based on a collection of data gathered from course catalogs, syllabuses, required textbooks, and surveys filled out by personnel and students in the programs. Using this data, they rated each program based on 18 standards. The standards were divided into four broad categories: Selection, Content Preparation, Professional Skills, and Outcomes.
These categories are pretty well chosen, as they hit on aspects of a program that should be both easy to measure, and important to checking teacher readiness. The selection standards looked at how rigorous the admission process for each program was. The NCTQ says that they set their minimum standard as admission of only students ranking in the top half of their classes. In their research, they found that only about 36% of undergraduate and 7% of graduate programs rated were highly likely to be meeting this standard.
The content preparation standards should be self-explanatory. The aim was to see how well each program teaches its students about the basic content that is needed to be effective in their subject area. This data is broken up by content and grade level; a quick glance over the data suggests that approximately a quarter of the rated schools are meeting their particular standards with high fidelity. To determine what content knowledge is essential, the report relied primarily on standards as laid out in the Common Core curriculum that the vast majority of states have adopted.
The professional skills standards relate to the teaching of pedagogical techniques regarding classroom management, lesson planning, assessment, and secondary methods that are specific to individual content areas. Also included in this category is a standard related to student teaching experience, which focused on how well supported student teachers are by both program personnel and their cooperating teachers in the schools where they complete their practica. On all of these measures except assessment at least 40% of the programs examined were rated as providing insufficient training. Less than a third were rated as providing satisfactory training in any area.
The last category, outcomes, measured how well programs follow up with their students post-graduation to get feedback for use in program improvement. About a quarter of the programs rated received satisfactory marks for this area.
So, that’s an overview of the data as it was presented. Just looking at the numbers, it seems like a pretty damning report. The thing that I find most concerning, and probably the most valid point out of everything, is that teacher prep programs as a whole are too easy to get into. Teaching is a profession that needs to have a basis in scientific practice, which means that it requires rigorous thought. Having admissions standards that do not weed out people who aren’t capable of maintaining that kind of rigor will only hurt our education system in the long run. Of course, there’s probably a very real explanation for the low standards of admission: teaching is not an attractive profession. It doesn’t pay well, the hours are long, and you sign up to be the punching bag of America when you get your first job in a classroom. Assuming you’re a capable person looking to start a new profession, there are much more lucrative careers to pursue. The result is that teachers tend to consist of people who are great at it, and went into the profession because they love it, and people who chose teaching because they couldn’t do something else. There is some sad truth to the adage, “Those who can’t, teach.” It seems to me that it’s a two-pronged problem, because competent teachers are needed, but making it too difficult just to get into training programs could reduce the number of available teachers, potentially creating a negative feedback loop.
I don’t have any solutions for that problem other than to say that something’s going to have to give; either the training programs will increase their admission rigor and reduce the number of competent teachers joining the workforce, or the appeal of becoming a teacher will need to be expanded so as to attract more capable candidates.
I can’t speak to any of the other findings before discussing some issues that I’ve seen brought up by other people who are much better prepared than I am to parse out the meaning of the methodologies employed. Diane Ravitch, one of the most prominent figures in the ongoing debate over education reform, recently ran several posts on her blog discussing the report. Her opinion is that the report is highly flawed, biased, and of little value to the education debate. Her primary concern appears to be related to the methodology of the report. As I understand her objections, the NCTQ’s reliance primarily on course syllabuses and catalogs does not give a clear enough picture of the quality of education being provided in each program. Also, their prioritization of how well each program adheres to the Common Core standards presents a problem.
I agree that the Common Core may be a problematic set of standards, but the reality of the situation is that it’s what the majority of the country is using, and new teachers are not well served if they aren’t educated about the standards they’ll have to address when they get in the classroom. Even if you think that the Common Core should be circumvented or reformed, isn’t it best to know what the standards expect of your students right now?
I was originally informed of the report through the SpellTalk listserv. It’s an excellent professional resource for anyone who works in education with a focus on child literacy. It’s also free to sign up, and becoming a member gives access to the database of previous emails sent to the listserv since its inception. The community on SpellTalk is phenomenal, consisting of a large and vocal group of professionals who advocate for evidence based practice in educational policy. Simply put, they believe in the importance of basing any pedagogical model on scientifically sound research, and are highly skeptical of pedagogy that doesn’t take this first important step. There has been healthy debate on the listserv lately about the NCTQ report, with many people on both sides discussing the merits of the project. In response to Diane Ravitch’s complaint about the report’s use of primarily paper materials to rate programs and not take into account the quality of faculty at institutions, one major voice on the listserv pointed out that excellent faculty are irrelevant if a program is poorly structured or incomplete in its scope. I think that’s a fair point to make, because suggesting that programs need to be evaluated based on the talent of their faculty instead of the quality of their design sounds suspiciously similar to the accountability movement’s complaint that students fail only because of untalented teachers. It reminds me of a discussion on Constructivist pedagogy that my friend James posted on his education blog a few weeks ago. If you have time, you should definitely check it out, because James always writes incredibly thoughtful and well-researched articles about issues in education (he happens to be one of the main reasons I wouldn’t choose a different graduate school if I had to do the experience over again).
So there are my thoughts. This report is a really big deal in the world of education right now, if for no other reason than because it’s stirred up a lot of discussion about what makes for an effective teacher preparation program. I’m looking forward to seeing how things turn out, and whether this report ends up being something that educators generally take as a credible resource, since the NCTQ intends to publish updates to it on a regular basis.