That’s one of the suggestions Arthur E. Levine, the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, made in his recent report that has the field of teacher education in an uproar. He recommended tossing out the 52-year-old institution and replacing it with a new accrediting body.
But others have come to the defense of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, arguing that the group has forced programs to raise their standards, and thereby turn out better-prepared teachers.
Still others would prefer if there were no accrediting body whatsoever.
Regardless, Mr. Levine’s long-awaited analysis of teacher education programs has further shaken a community that has been under attack and at odds for more than a decade over the quality of its graduates and what can be done to improve it.
“I think we need some radical thinking for how to prepare teachers, and need to work on a 21st-century model,” said Tom Carroll, the president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. Scrapping NCATE, which is “a work in progress,” is not the answer, he said.
Mr. Levine’s criticism of NCATE came shortly after a federal commission on higher education, citing significant shortcomings, urged a transformation of the accreditation system for colleges and universities.
A new accrediting entity for teacher education as proposed by Mr. Levine would involve the nation’s elite schools in setting standards and enforcement mechanisms. That, Mr. Levine said, would “establish credibility, encourage the participation of outstanding schools in enforcement, raise the status of accreditation, and increase current standards.” (“Prominent Teacher-Educator Assails Field, Suggests New Accrediting Body in Report,” Sept. 20, 2006.)
Such a process would also require setting benchmarks based on schools of education being professional schools, not graduate schools of arts and sciences, and rooting measures of success in K-12 classroom outcomes.
Some of those very standards for improvement that Mr. Levine lays out in his report are strikingly similar to the ones that NCATE started phasing in in 2001, says its president, Arthur E. Wise. Among them, institutions seeking accreditation must assess their students’ performance once they are running their own classrooms and use the results to refine and improve their programs. In fact, he believes that much of the criticism is directed at the old standards, which focused on college offerings rather than outcomes.
Shift to Outcomes
NCATE accredits 623 of the 1,200 traditional university-based teacher-training programs; nearly 100 others are seeking accreditation. The Washington-based group, established in 1954, is a coalition of 33 organizations, including the two national teachers’ unions, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, and the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification.
The group sends out a team of reviewers every five years to institutions seeking accreditation or renewal. Teams are made up of teacher-educators, teachers, state and local policymakers, and members of subject-matter organizations.
Seventeen states now require all their teacher programs to be NCATE-accredited. In addition, 25 states have adopted or adapted NCATE’s standards and process to evaluate institutions that do not seek national accreditation.
Mr. Wise cites a 2005 survey conducted by NCATE as one indication that his organization is working: 95 percent of deans of education programs reported that their candidates benefit by attending an NCATE-accredited institution.
Even in his own report, Mr. Levine turned up benefits to attending NCATE-accredited institutions. He found slight gains in K-12 reading and math for students whose teachers graduated from those programs.
Martha S. Gage, the president of NASDTEC—the state directors’ group—and the director of teacher education and licensure for the Kansas education department, said that while NCATE accreditation is not mandatory for teacher programs in her state, 19 of 22 such programs have sought and received the NCATE nod because they find the process extremely beneficial.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act and NCATE standards have been the two major factors fueling improvements in teacher colleges in Kansas, she said. Standards that NCATE started implementing in 2001 that require schools to provide evidence that their graduates have the knowledge and skills to teach successfully have been particularly helpful, Ms. Gage said.
“As NCATE has stepped up its standards, our institutions have worked really hard to meet them,” she said.
Mary E. Diez, the dean of the graduate program of education at Alverno College in Milwaukee, one of the four teacher education programs that Mr. Levine cites as exemplary—all of them NCATE-accredited—said her institution had been working for several years on building a program that focused on outcomes. Even so, the NCATE process proved helpful, she said.
“NCATE paralleled what we were doing, but gave us a national foil or touchstone to look at our programs,” Ms. Diez said, adding that being part of the accreditation process challenges participants to improve continually.
Another benefit to the process, she said, is that it involves review boards composed of representatives from across the field of education. “There is no other place where all those groups are working together and talking to each other,” she said.
Even the group’s critics say it has improved markedly over the past few years.
“I think [Mr. Levine’s] criticisms apply more to the historical NCATE than to the current one,” said Frank B. Murray, the president of the only other national accreditation body for teacher education, the Washington-based Teacher Education Accreditation Council.
The change has occurred partly, he said, because NCATE has moved closer to TEAC’s way of thinking, and partly because NCATE has had to accept ideas percolating in the education community to shift the accreditation decision to outcomes, such as graduates’ performance in classrooms.
In his report, Mr. Levine points out that the most selective teacher programs are least likely to seek NCATE accreditation. His previous institution, Teachers College, was one of them until New York state made it mandatory.
Margaret Crocco, a professor of education at Teachers College, headed the faculty executive committee at the time of the NCATE review. The process, she said, was time-consuming, taking two to three years in preparation. “The work just builds and builds, abates right after the visit, then resumes again,” she said.
Still, Ms. Crocco acknowledges there were positive aspects to the process. For example, it helped the college devise a number of new assessment systems to track student performance.
On the other hand, she said, some new standards that emphasize performance assessment are inflexible when applied to individual institutions. NCATE, for instance, wants to know whether students can do something, rather than just know something.
Patricia Albjerg Graham, a former dean of the graduate school of education at Harvard University, said the revised NCATE standards are not likely to effect great improvement in schools of education.
“What has been true of NCATE in the past, and what has not yet turned around, is that NCATE, in cooperation with many state departments of education, is trying to improve teacher education through bureaucratic regulation,” she said.
TEAC, the other accrediting body, was established in 1997. It now accredits 27 programs in 10 states and is still seen as a bit player in the field. For that reason, Mr. Levine chose not to include TEAC in his report.
Mr. Murray, its president, holds up TEAC as a good model for redesigning accreditation. The group asks programs to provide evidence to support their claims that their graduates are competent, caring, qualified teachers—in essence, allowing each institution to set its own standards.
“It has a track record of success and is a viable alternative to NCATE,” Mr. Murray said.
Others are dubious that TEAC is the solution.
Ms. Diez, who has looked at the TEAC process, said the group lacks a set of national standards, unlike NCATE.
Most detractors and supporters of the two groups prefer to see the existing systems work on improving themselves. An important step in upgrading the quality of teacher programs, they say, would be to mandate accreditation.
Mr. Carroll of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a privately organized group based in Washington, says the real problem is the lack of common standards for teacher colleges and the ability of such colleges to opt in and out of accreditation.
“Until we have a system where we demand accreditation,” he said, “the efforts of NCATE can only go so far.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2006 edition of Education Week as Teacher-Prep Field of Two Minds Over Replacing NCATE