By Bill Henk— Over the past few days, I’ve been repeatedly asked my thoughts about the recent report by a group known as the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).
The report, which is entitled the Teacher Prep Review 2013, is published in collaboration with US News and World Report (USN&WR). In short, it aspires to be a meaningful analysis of teacher education programs in the United States.
Since I’m dean of a College of Education that prepares teachers and since Marquette was included in the analysis, it’s understandable why some people would be interested in my reaction. No doubt my response strikes them as being odd at first, because what I say when asked is “a lot and not much.”
Although the report represents breaking news to these inquiring minds (and probably to many readers of our blog), I’ve known about it for quite a while, and as a result, have been able to think about it “a lot.” For that matter, pretty much every professional with a connection to teacher training has been aware of the initiative being in the works for some time now.
From the point that programs were first asked to participate until the release of the report, I’ve speculated about the value of cooperating and the consequences of resisting. More importantly, though, I’ve thought about the integrity of the analyses and the report’s societal impact, not whether the outcomes would be favorable for our programs.
In the end, Marquette joined the other 32 teacher education institutions in Wisconsin and a wealth of other programs nationwide in choosing not to participate in the study. Once we knew what NCTQ planned to assess and the static and outdated way the organization planned to go about it, we just couldn’t assist the effort.
Thinking Personally About the Report
For me, declining to participate qualified first as a matter of principle, because it would falsely legitimize the effort. It was not a matter of closing ranks with esteemed education colleagues, nor of fear.
Fact is, we have so many indicators of quality here in our College of Education (including high admission standards, a robust liberal arts curriculum, national accreditation, a renowned literacy center, extraordinary employer satisfaction with our graduates and their own reports of preparedness, a commendable track record in educational reform and community outreach, and even a valued #65 national ranking for graduate education from USN&WR itself) — that I didn’t dread the possible findings.
From a personal standpoint, I’ve thought about the report as an informed American citizen and as a parent of a school-aged child. I’ve thought about it as a product of a teacher preparation program myself***, as a practicing teacher, as a professor of literacy, as an educational researcher, and as an academic administrator in departments, schools, and colleges of education. I’ve even thought about it as someone who prides himself on open-mindedness to educational innovation including alternative pathways to teacher certification like Teach For America.
Despite these many roles, in this post I don’t speak formally for the profession of teacher education at either the national or state level although I could. Neither do I speak for Marquette University or for the College of Education or either of our departments. I speak only for myself, a child advocate and someone who has devoted much of his professional career to the pursuit of excellence in teaching and in P-12 schooling.
Let me say upfront that there is at least one thing that NCTQ and I agree on completely. Teacher quality is vital. Research indicates that teachers constitute the single most important determinant of student achievement in schools. I’m also personally drawn to other NCTQ preferences like high standards for entering the profession, data tracking systems, value-added measures (as one indicator of teacher quality), performance-driven evaluation (when not based solely on standardized test performance), the Common Core State Standards, and even the importance of phonological approaches to teaching reading as long as individual learning differences are genuinely respected.
At any rate, now that the NCTQ report is finally out there, I’ve had a chance to absorb “a lot” of the corresponding content — from the overall analysis itself to pre-emptive state level op-ed pieces, various organizational press releases and national rejoinders from the teacher education community — pointing out its methodological flaws and its data collection shortcomings — to triumphal “I told you so” pieces from educational pundits who are chronically critical of teacher education. For that matter, I’ve even read plenty of comments on both sides of the ledger posted by readers of the electronic texts, which frankly is always something of an adventure.
So what do I think about the report? Here’s where “not much“ comes in.
I don’t make that statement because I’m smug, arrogant, or dismissive, because that’s no stance to take when you’re associated with anything that is, rightly or wrongly, under some semblance of siege. I don’t think I’m all that defensive either, as critics of teacher education programs might naturally presume. Truth be told, I’ve always seen myself as more of an educational psychologist and researcher than a teacher educator although I value the work I’ve done in that arena.
And by the way, I don’t relegate my reaction to “not much,” because Marquette’s review amounted to being benign. We received NO RATING on most categories, because NCTQ would not have had the information necessary to make a judgment. We also received high marks for selectivity, which was no surprise to me, because the University’s central admission processes ensure that the bar is set high here for entrance to the College of Education. So, on those counts, NCTQ called our situation exactly right based upon the information it had.
On the flip side, we were downgraded for elementary and secondary education on a somewhat opaque category labeled ‘common core content.’ We’ll need to unpack that category in order to know if the criticism is accurate. If it amounts to what we suspect, then that call is going to be incorrect, because Jesuit education, which we practice with fidelity at Marquette, is known far and wide for its emphasis on a broad-based liberal arts and sciences curriculum. Then again, maybe we have some work to do.
Getting to the Point
It’s when I put on my researcher hat that I don’t think much of the study. At its core, it strikes me as being fundamentally flawed. Nothing more. Nothing less. Rather than go into deep detail here, I instead invite readers to explore the teacher education op-ed pieces and rejoinders cited above. A much fuller explanation of my measurement concerns and many other types made by others reside there.
Briefly, though, from my vantage point, putting so much emphasis on syllabi and course requirements, which are inputs rather than outputs, dramatically limits the merit and usefulness of the work. For instance, there are no site visits, and key stakeholders are not interviewed or surveyed. And the rapidly escalating inaccuracies being pointed out in the report’s conclusions, coupled with gaping voids in the data set, cripples the report in my view. I mean no disrespect, but I find myself sincerely struggling to understand how any self-respecting social scientist would endorse this methodology or this severely incomplete data collection in good conscience.
Perhaps the single most telling statement is this one from Linda Darling-Hammond’s rejoinder in the Wall Street Journal :
NCTQ’s methodology is a paper review of published course requirements and course syllabi against a check list that does not consider the actual quality of instruction that the programs offer, evidence of what their students learn, or whether graduates can actually teach.”
That’s as close to a conceptual surgical strikes as it gets.
A metaphor offered by one of the commenters also caught my attention. This reader opined, “the NCTQ report has all of the reliability of a restaurant review that was done by looking at the menu online and never going to the restaurant to taste the food or experience the service and ambiance.” Another characterized the NCTQ document as “a seductive bait of a report so highly flawed as to be its own parody.”
In fairness, I imagine at this point that any critics of teacher education reading this post are saying, “How typical! What would you expect an education dean to say anyway?” Fair enough, and I don’t expect to convince many or perhaps any in that camp of my intention to be objective.
Nonetheless, I want to point out that the NCTQ report is certainly a substantial and professionally rendered document. It’s loaded with information of various types and value and showcases an impressive list of funders, endorsers, and technical advisers. Perhaps the motivations of some of them are questionable, rooted in politics or profit, but I want to believe that a fair number truly care about the same thing as me — teacher quality.
The problem is that the methods used in the report don’t adequately demonstrate either the presence or absence of that commodity. As a result, child advocates on both sides of the teacher education fence remain ultimately no closer to assuring the educational welfare of our American school students on the basis of this work, which obviously involved an enormous amount of time, work, energy, and resources.
The Bottom Line
Do weak teacher education programs exist? Almost certainly. Should poor programs be discredited or terminated? Definitely. Should Marquette’s teacher education programs be held accountable for continuous improvement in teacher quality? Absolutely. But in the same way that I wouldn’t panic over an unflattering review, I wouldn’t wear a good review as a badge of honor.
But let’s take these questions one step further. Would America benefit from a national study that, on the basis of its methodology, rightfully applauds truly stellar teacher education programs and exposes subpar ones? Without question. But the NCTQ report unfortunately is not that study. Should a right-minded, rigorous, and fair analysis be proposed, the College of Education at Marquette will participate fully if I’m still the dean.
In the meantime, many in the media, desperate for stories that can be sensationalized, have predictably rushed to unfounded judgments and elevated this study to some degree of undeserved national attention. Although this state of affairs is regrettable, it’s at least motivated me to write this post — one that I can share quickly with those inquiring minds who, for whatever reasons, want to know what I happen to think about NCTQ.
And with that time savings in hand, I can get back to the important business of developing the highest quality teachers possible.
Note: For what it’s worth, from firsthand experience I believe that teacher education has gotten profoundly (not just “a lot”) better since I was trained in the 1970’s. It can no longer be considered what one critic opined as the “literal bottom of the intellectual barrel in universities” that existed in the 1950’s. The discipline now strikes me as much more comprehensive, demanding, explicit, intentional, and accountable than the days when those criticisms were likely apt. In fact, every teacher education program in Wisconsin will now require, as part of the state department of education’s Continuous Review Process (CRP), that aspiring teachers engage successfully in the edTPA process (Teacher Performance Assessment), an intense evaluation of actual teaching and reflection that will be judged externally by expert national reviewers through a major commercial vendor.