Like many deans at schools of education, I have been following the media coverage of the release of U.S. News & World Report‘s first-ever ranking of institutions that prepare teachers. The research behind these rankings was done by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and policy group based in Washington. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education had urged its members to boycott participation in the study, arguing that its analysis of selected syllabi is an inadequate vehicle for determining quality. As anticipated, the publication of the rankings has, in fact, polarized positions further, while doing absolutely nothing to strengthen policy and practice in regard to the improvement of teachers and teaching.
The NCTQ’s effort is a classic case of “reform” overhype and overreach. It has the benefit of a well-funded media campaign and a partnership with U.S. News. But AACTE, while right about the NCTQ, falls short as well. The association takes issue with those education schools—including my own—that work with alternate routes, and is too easily portrayed as defending the status quo. AACTE has shown an inability to frame the debate in ways that help teacher-preparation programs move forward.
The resulting charge and countercharge between these two titans is a Beltway battle that would be a mere distraction for those of us working to meet the needs of schools, were it not sucking so much oxygen out of our environment.
All this moves us no closer to solving the challenges of education in the 21st century. Thirty years after the release of A Nation at Risk, policy elites continue to run from one small-bore focus to another. They exaggerate small differences in policy stances and overgeneralize claims, believing that success in one small area will make better teachers everywhere, all the while imagining that if providers only did what the loudest among them wanted, education for children would improve. This is a false perception.
While the conventional wisdom is that teacher-preparation programs have failed to improve, the real truth is quite different. Although differences in quality certainly exist, a number of forces have driven significant upgrades over the last decade. Most important is the work of national accreditation institutions that moved from assessing inputs to demanding evidence of outcomes. When I was dean at the teacher-preparation and education studies program at Yale University, colleagues and I at all 16 Connecticut teacher-preparation institutions responded by building robust data-driven systems to collect and document that our graduates could both know and do what we claimed. Every institution got better.
At Lesley University, where I am the dean of the graduate school of education, I found myself in a very different environment. As a private, tuition-driven institution, in a crowded field, we have to prove our value every day. We are constantly disciplined by the market. It, more than any other force, requires us to track changes in the environment, listen to district stakeholders, and innovate to meet their needs and the needs of our students. Our success depends on our graduates’ getting a job and being effective in the classroom.
None of these dynamics fits the narrative spun by the National Council on Teacher Quality, which portrays teacher-preparation institutions as “an industry of mediocrity” and conjures up images of uniformly organized, bureaucratic institutions that are impervious to change. The NCTQ’s insistence on one best way depends on this false image of uniformity. It justifies either-or debates that, while politically useful to garner public attention, are neither effective nor enlightening.
Take the issue of what should constitute the criteria for entry into a teacher-preparation program, which the NCTQ considers to be a strong indicator of school effectiveness. There is general agreement within the field that a candidate should be “highly qualified,” though what that constitutes is open to interpretation. One version of “qualified” for a graduate school preparation program is a minimum score in either the candidate’s incoming grade point average or on the Graduate Record Exam.
In our program design with the Urban Teacher Center, for instance, we supported an entry standard for admission. That is why we were able to list our name as a supporter of the federal GREAT Act legislation, which promotes alternate routes with high academic entry requirements across the nation.
However, for traditional certification programs at Lesley, we use wider, more nuanced entry criteria. We believe great teachers come from a variety of academic backgrounds; thus, we design programs with high support and high standards that generate both opportunity and quality in our graduates. We use our discernment to assess other assets for graduate school candidates with lower scores, by, for example, considering their postcollege success in a specific job. We do this not as a philosophical stance but a practical one, based on our own data tracking and analysis of our candidates. We find great teachers every year in this category.
Hard as it is for those who insist on a single answer, both approaches work for us because the program design, supports, and demands are different. Other teacher-preparation programs likely make the call based on their specific designs.
Ultimately, the important criteria are not based solely on entry standards, program design, content of syllabi, or even clinical practice. They are a series of outcomes: How effective are the graduates? How ready are they for the challenge of today’s classrooms, no matter what the school context?
While the conventional wisdom is that teacher-preparation programs have failed to improve, the real truth is quite different."
For many institutions, including ours, this is a daunting challenge. And we know it is important. New teacher-preparation programs that provide candidates to a select group of specific charters have only reinforced our drive to connect to alumni data. Their “closed loop” system allows these prep programs to track the effectiveness of their graduates back to decisions made along the candidates’ program of study. Our partnership with the Urban Teaching Center has directly shown us the power of such a feedback system. It has driven quick and powerful improvements to our joint programs.
But that is only a small part of our work. Like any large teacher-preparation institution, we produce graduates who find their first job in a wide variety of settings. We need great models of “open loop” feedback systems, that collect alumni-performance results concretely and accurately, while accounting for dramatically different contexts.
Solving that challenge is where we all need leadership, from AACTE and others. Support for progress in this area can come in many forms: competitions, identification of new data-collection systems, pilots funded by a variety of sponsors. What doesn’t help is a retro-debate about inputs and well-paid ad campaigns ginning up public skepticism of a key part of the education field.
It would be nice to simply ignore the debate ignited by the NCTQ, to pretend it doesn’t matter. But it does. It diverts attention, resources, and even basic understanding away from institutions like mine so that the work we do gets tarred with one brush or the other. No single set of standards is right for the diversity of teachers we need.
Preparing effective teachers is challenging enough. It is essential to have policy leadership that takes us forward toward meaningful outcomes, rather than the sideshow of a Beltway brawl.
A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Memo From the Front Lines