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New President Hopes to Use NCATE as Reform Lever

By Vaishali Honawar — October 03, 2008 7 min read
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The new president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education is brimming with ideas for change.

The system of accreditation is under a microscope, said James G. Cibulka, who feels a need to respond to expectations in the field for an improved teacher workforce and teacher education programs.

“My idea is to use NCATE as a lever for reform,” Mr. Cibulka, who took over the reins of the Washington-based organization in July, said in a recent interview.

To that end, he wants to drive institutions to establish programs and practices aimed at increasing precollegiate student achievement, closing achievement gaps, recruiting a highly qualified and diverse teacher workforce, and strengthening induction programs for new teachers and other teacher-retention strategies.

“These are areas that we should be addressing through the accreditation process,” he said.

James G. Cibulka wants institutions to move from perceiving accreditation as an isolated event to a stimulus for continued improvement.

Further, Mr. Cibulka, 64, says he is eager to continue streamlining the process of accreditation begun under his predecessor. And he wants to bring into the accreditation fold nontraditional preparation routes such as urban residencies.

NCATE has undergone many modifications in the past two decades, but as the education landscape changes and accountability pressures on teachers intensify, members of the search committee also wanted someone who would come up with new ideas while continuing to cut the red tape and costs.

“It’s not a conservationist’s role. I think the board would be comfortable to describe it as a change-agent leadership,” said Sharon P. Robinson, the president of the Washington-based American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, or AACTE, and a member of the NCATE board of directors.

From the Trenches

One of the reasons for the board’s confidence in Mr. Cibulka is his background: He comes to NCATE directly from the other side. Before his appointment, he served for six years as the dean of the college of education at the University of Kentucky, an NCATE-accredited institution. Before that, he was an associate dean and professor in the University of Maryland College Park’s college of education.

He started his career as an administrator for the Chicago district and as a teacher and administrator in the Model City Community Schools Program in Duluth, Minn.

“He knows from the user’s side what it’s like going through an NCATE review,” said Rick Ginsberg, the dean of the education school at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence. “So he brings that set of experiences to the table and can take a look at the process and say, ‘Here’s something we can think about.’ ”

Mr. Ginsberg, whose association with Mr. Cibulka dates back to the 1970s, when they earned doctorates in educational administration at the University of Chicago, described the new NCATE president as a “very thoughtful, very intense man, always very well-informed in any decision.”

Mr. Cibulka also brings with him a solid research background focusing on urban school governance, school policy and politics, and education accountability.

He says he would like to see research inform any change in standards that may happen at NCATE.

“We were drawn to Jim’s really strong record of scholarship,” Ms. Robinson said.

All through his career, she added, “you see a very clear connection to the K-12 community in every single situation.”

At the University of Maryland, for instance, Mr. Cibulka helped start a partnership between the college of education and the Prince George’s County, Md., school district to prepare teachers in shortage areas. At Kentucky, he helped forge a universitywide partnership with the Fayette County public schools to help low-performing schools become high-performing.

During the 18-year tenure of NCATE’s previous president, Arthur E. Wise, the council went through many significant changes, including, in 2001, an entire revamping of its standards to make them more outcomes-based.

The group has also, in recent years, begun accrediting alternative-certification pathways run by teacher colleges. Last year, it accredited an online teacher education program offered by Western Governors University.

NCATE, which accredits nearly 700 of the nation’s 1,200 teacher education programs, also last year began streamlining the process, with a pilot effort at 31 member institutions. The initiative includes tightening the format of reports submitted by the institutions and review teams and introducing a Web-based reporting system.

This fall, NCATE plans to survey member institutions seeking feedback on the process to gather information for future revisions.

Still, the group has been tested. In 1997, a competitor, the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, or TEAC, formed. In 2006, teacher education expert Arthur E. Levine blamed NCATE for lowering teacher education standards.

Then, last year, at a meeting of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, teacher colleges hotly debated and only barely renewed a long-standing resolution calling for a single accreditor for the field—a move that showed many in the field wanted an alternative to NCATE.

Kati Haycock, the president of the Washington-based advocacy group Education Trust, said that under the new president, she would like to see NCATE play more of a leadership role in improving teacher education programs.

“When I listen to what I think of as the young education entrepreneur crowd like the New Teacher Project, Teach For America, or New Leaders for New Schools, and when I get inside what they do, I am astonished how focused they are on understanding which of their products are more effective” and using that knowledge to improve their programs, Ms. Haycock said.

That’s something, she said, teacher colleges have failed to do. “They are not in a continuous cycle of getting better at what they do,” said Ms. Haycock, who served on a commission appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to look into the future of higher education.

Urban Residencies

In recent months, the accrediting body has turned the spotlight on some areas of the field felt to be in need of improvement. For instance, NCATE convened an expert panel to draft recommendations for how teacher colleges can write courses and curricula to strengthen teacher-candidates’ understanding of how children develop emotionally and psychologically.

One of the areas Mr. Cibulka appears most excited about is the accreditation of such nontraditional teacher-preparation programs as urban teacher residencies. Those programs have a strong focus on clinical experience, and candidates in such programs, which typically run for a year, spend almost every day in a classroom alongside an experienced teacher.

Two models are now running in Boston and Chicago. NCATE last month issued a report that discussed how the time was right for the education community to embrace residency programs. The Boston one had exhibited interest in seeking accreditation, and the accreditor is now exploring “how we might interact” with the residencies, Mr. Cibulka said.

He also wants institutions to move from perceiving accreditation as an isolated event to viewing it as a stimulus for continued improvement through data gathering, analysis, and program change.

A Unified System?

Other changes for NCATE could be on the horizon. Some teacher education experts and watchers have long hoped for a unified accreditation system, which, they believe, would boost the status of teaching as a profession, as well as improve teacher quality.

Recently, NCATE, following recommendations from an expert panel convened by the teacher colleges’ association, selected a design committee jointly with TEAC, to look into forming a unified accrediting body with multiple pathways.

“I think when we look at countries that are performing well, it is because they have a national consensus about quality teaching and can organize training resources, professional-development resources, and develop teacher- induction programs around that consensus,” said Tom Carroll, the president of the Washington-based National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

But “our highly localized system is very fragmented,” he said, “and that fragmentation is not helping us build the teaching quality we need to build for the 21st century.”

Those involved in designing the new system say they have high hopes, although they add it is too early to guess how a unified system would look.

“Art Wise has instigated an array of reforms [at NCATE] that will continue under Dr. Cibulka, and TEAC has brought a different, interesting process” to the table, said Mr. Ginsberg of the University of Kansas, who is on the design committee. Plumbing a unified system is “very good for the field,” he added, “and will speak to the realization that we need to explore processes that guarantee high quality and are not overly cumbersome.”

Mr. Ginsberg said that in moving forward, it is important that accreditation programs offer transparency.

“We want the process to be based on sound research, although I am not suggesting it is not now,” he said. “We want our programs to be collecting good data, the right data, and the assessments need to tie into quality indicators that we develop and agree upon. And the assessment data should be fed back to the institutions so they can improve on areas that can be improved.”

The ultimate goal, Mr. Cibulka said, is to produce a stronger accreditation system.

“What will emerge is this new, stronger system and a process that may not look exactly the same as it looks now for NCATE and TEAC,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2008 edition of Education Week as New President Hopes to Employ NCATE

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