Teacher Preparation

Alternative Certification Deemed Weak by NCTQ in New Teacher-Prep Report

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 17, 2014 7 min read
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Alternative-certification programs for preparing teachers suffer from many of the same problems that the National Council on Teacher Quality has identified in traditional, university-based programs, the Washington-based group concludes in a new pilot study.

That’s one of the key findings from the advocacy group’s second annual review of teacher-preparation programs, released June 17.

In this latest, “something to offend everyone” edition, the NCTQ continues to find fault with most of the programs based at higher education institutions. But it also identifies no shortage of troubles with alternative programs.

For the most part, the 85 alternative programs analyzed weren’t sufficiently selective, didn’t ensure that applicants knew their content, and did far too little to supervise the new teachers in the classroom, the NCTQ concludes. That last part is particularly important, because most alternative-certification programs allow teachers to be the classroom “teacher of record” after minimal preservice training, if any at all.

Kate Walsh, the NCTQ’s president, deemed most of them “horrible” in an interview, particularly the Texas-based programs, many of which are for-profits.

“They are poorly regulated and have very poor practices,” she said.

Traditional programs didn’t fare much better, the report said, especially at the elementary level, with most not ensuring candidates had strong enough content, practice working with struggling readers, or student teaching experiences.

Last year’s inaugural teacher-prep review was immediately rejected by most teacher colleges and, especially, by their main membership body, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Criticism focused on the NCTQ’s tack of reviewing syllabi and other course materials rather than visiting institutions; its use of open-records requests and current students to obtain documents; the complaint that its standards weren’t agreed to by the profession; and the fact that its research products aren’t peer reviewed. Additionally, critics have claimed that the project is ideologically driven, given NCTQ’s role as incubator of an alternative-certification group, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), which received federal funding from the George W. Bush administration.

The latter complaint seems less viable now that the NCTQ has turned its green eyeshade toward alternative-certification programs.

Scope of the Review

For this year’s edition, the NCTQ invited all of the institutions with at least one rated program to resubmit materials. In all, 118 took the group up on the offer and received revamped scores; the others have the same ratings as last year. (NCTQ did update a few of its standards, making it easier, for instance, to meet the candidate-selection bar, and re-scored each program on those indicators.) The group was ultimately able to assign scores to elementary, secondary, or special education programs located in 836 institutions.

There are 19 standards in all, although only a subset counted towards each program’s actual score. Instead of last year’s star ratings, the NCTQ ranked programs this year. Topping the list of elementary programs was Dallas Baptist University. Western Governors University, in Salt Lake City, was deemed the best secondary provider, and Arizona State University, in Tempe, to have the best special education program. Programs in the bottom half of the rankings for each category weren’t given a specific ranking.

Finally, for its pilot look at alternative certification, the group examined 85 alternative-certification programs, choosing only those that operate outside of higher education institutions, since they are the most likely to look different from traditional programming. Because most alternative routes tend to be in the secondary content areas, it looked only at those areas.

The NCTQ modified some of the standards slightly to account for the different nature of such programs. For example, traditional programs had to give teacher-candidates five visits during student-teaching. But because many alternative routes allow teachers in training to be the classroom teacher of record, the council graded them on whether they had five formal observations in the first 8 to 12 weeks.

2014 Findings

Here’s a rundown of some of the report’s highlights:

  • Elementary programs continue to be weaker overall, with few doing enough to ensure that candidates have sufficient content knowledge in math and science, for instance.
  • For all their complaints about the NCTQ’s methods, programs are apparently paying attention to the ratings, and several improved upon re-evaluation. The University of Alaska - Fairbanks seems to have completely reworked its elementary-reading programming, for instance. Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., outlined more explicit course requirements for its elementary and secondary social-studies program to earn higher scores; East Central University in Ada, Okla., and Murray State University in Murray, Ky., both improved their classroom-management scores with better observation forms.
  • A few programs stood out for having strong programs in both elementary and secondary education (some of which I’ve written about in other contexts): Arizona State University, CUNY-Hunter College (N.Y.), Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., the University of Houston, and Western Governors University, a blended online program, among others.
  • Special education continues to be weak in content, with half the states permitting candidates to earn a K-12 license irrespective of what grade level a candidate will ultimately teach.

Many of the findings provide plenty of room for dispute, and as they did last year, programs will no doubt contest some of their grades. The AACTE, for one, doesn’t believe the improvements had anything to do with the NCTQ project.

“NCTQ provides an interesting review that acknowledges the impressive reform efforts now on-going in the educator preparation community. Much of this work has been supported by [federal] Teacher Quality Partnership Grants and TEACH grants—initiatives that pre-date the NCTQ review,” said AACTE President Sharon P. Robinson. “It is erroneous to think that NCTQ was the cause of these reforms.”

Alternative Certification Findings

The 85 alternative programs, meanwhile, were scored on an A to F scale. For the most part, scores were abysmal. Three quarters of the programs, the NCTQ said, failed to ensure that candidates had enough content knowledge through a transcript review or a testing requirement; another 73 didn’t supervise candidates enough; and just 3 percent required entering candidates to have a 3.0 GPA or higher.

The council took particular issue with Texas’ alternative-certification programs, which produce about 4 in 10 new teachers in the state. The Lone Star State is the only one to permit for-profit programs, and many of them are very weak, the NCTQ contends. Not a single program in the state earned a grade above a C.

Only one program, Teach For America Massachusetts, got an A grade. The other TFA regions did less well on content, the NCTQ said, because they relied on state content requirements, not all of which the council found sufficient.

The ABCTE programs, meanwhile, got pretty low scores overall, D’s or C’s depending on the state program in question.

Mea Culpas?

Notably, the report’s introduction this year contains a number of mea culpas regarding the bad blood between the NCTQ and teacher colleges. And Walsh agreed that her group bore some of the blame.

“At times we were a bit arrogant about what it is we think teacher education should be doing,” she said. “Even if we agree to disagree, we can be more respectful.”

The latest edition, meanwhile, will quite possibly upset the alternative-certification establishment. In one strongly worded section, for instance, the report states that both elementary and special education require too much specialized work to allow for high-quality alternative-certification programs.

The NCTQ review isn’t the only teacher-preparation quality-control effort going on, either. Federal teacher-prep rules are pending, the voluntary accrediting body, CAEP, is to begin using tougher new standards in 2016, and there are state initiatives, too. It’s a busy time for policy, but Walsh cautioned that the biggest push for improvement needs to come from colleges and alternative programs themselves.

“Ultimately, states, CAEP, the feds can push as much as they want, but until higher education realizes it’s their duty to produce the teachers that meet the needs of districts, these efforts will fail,” she said.

The chart below shows how the 118 institutions that submitted new materials for the NCTQ’s 2014 review fared.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.