Why Do Teacher-Education Programs Fear a New Rating System?

November 06, 2011

In a welcome change, the focus on education reform is now beginning to shift from evaluating teachers to evaluating teacher-preparation programs. But, unfortunately, institutions that educate teachers are resisting this scrutiny and slowing down necessary reforms.

This fall, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would rate teacher-preparation programs based in part on the test scores not only of their students, but also of their students' students. While this raised some concern among traditional university-based teacher-education programs, that response hardly compares to the hostility many people in higher education have toward an independent-rating system now in development by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

In Alabama, for example, not a single college or university agreed to participate in the new rating system, and the University of Mobile threatened to sue if it gets a low score in the rankings, which are scheduled to be published next fall. Such resistance is a mistake.

NCTQ is a nonprofit research organization that wants every classroom in America to have a quality teacher. It is working with U.S. News & World Report to systematically rate more than 1,000 teacher-preparation programs across the country. And even if programs refuse to cooperate, the council has a number of alternative strategies for rating them anyway. Like accrediting groups, the teacher-quality council wants to ensure that teachers are trained well. Toward that goal, the organization created its own standards in nearly 20 categories, including selectivity, classroom management, and measurement of student performance and professional performance of new teachers.

Two standards illustrate how the National Council on Teacher Quality examines aspects of preparation on which traditional accrediting approaches are either silent or do not drill down to the level of curriculum delivery. The first is selectivity.

Research suggests (and common sense confirms) that academically capable students make better teachers. Right now, many programs, especially many elementary-education programs, draw disproportionately from the academically weakest students attending college. Despite evidence that Finland, Singapore, and most other high-performing countries have identified the importance of drawing only the academically strongest students into teaching, traditional accrediting approaches tend to ignore the issue of selectivity. In contrast, the council's standard on selectivity seeks to admit students only from the top half of the college-going population.

The second standard is classroom management. Discipline problems have a significant impact on student learning and teacher effectiveness, yet there is no clearly defined standard within existing teacher-education accreditation and certainly not one that drills down to the level of curriculum delivery. As a result, teacher-education institutions vary greatly in how they teach management skills and how they assess them in the classroom. Again, in contrast, the council's standard requires that institutions ensure a student teacher's ability to establish a positive learning environment and demonstrate competence in techniques of classroom management and discipline.

Reactions from teacher-education institutions have been mostly negative. Some of them argue that the council's procedures are biased, insisting that NCTQ is against teacher education. Others oppose on principle any type of ranking or rating.

In fact, the teacher-quality council is against maintaining the status quo in teacher education. It wants to attract brighter students into the profession and wants institutions to be more demanding of students who hope to become teachers. These are admirable goals that all educators should embrace.

Yet, within days of the council's announcing its rating plan, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education—the professional association that represents teachers' colleges—challenged the validity of such a report and called into question the ability of U.S. News and the teacher council to effectively assess their programs. An AACTE survey of its members found that 91 percent refused to participate. Unfortunately, resistance to this review shields weaker members from public scrutiny and denies stronger members the acclaim they deserve.

The college association and others who oppose the new rating system prefer to rely on accreditation to drive and enforce quality. And both the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council strive to be rigorous, but only about half of all teacher-education programs have one or the other's seal of approval. What's more, there is no evidence that accredited programs produce more effective graduates, and no third party has ever made a real effort to evaluate the programs.

Teacher preparation is stronger than it was even a decade ago because teacher-education programs have become more clinically based and have put more attention on strengthening the disciplinary preparation of their prospective teachers. But we still have a long way to go, and the "circle the wagons" defensive strategy of the card-carrying teacher-education monopoly is impeding further progress toward quality. This is neither in the best interests of teacher-preparation institutions nor, most important, of students in elementary and secondary classrooms.

Change is coming whether we like it or not. Research is inconsistent in evaluating the effectiveness of traditionally prepared teachers versus those who come via alternative routes such as Teach for America or the New Teacher Project, but traditional teacher-prep programs have not historically been very successful in preparing teachers to work with children living in poverty. That is one reason why many urban district superintendents have been so eager to partner with programs like Teach for America, and why the Council of the Great City Schools, representing more than 60 large urban districts across the country, endorsed NCTQ's rating system this summer.

Criticism and debate over any external review of university-based programs is always welcome, and the teacher-quality council's methods can always be improved. But this country is not turning out enough teachers who are succeeding in the classroom, especially the urban classroom, and this validates the need for the council's work.

The United States relies on traditional teacher preparation for the vast majority of classroom teachers, and that will continue with or without the National Council on Teacher Quality's review. It simply offers the possibility of helping to improve the quality of that preparation.

Instead of defending what we do as acceptable professional practice or criticizing NCTQ, teacher-education institutions should join the effort and use the review process to prepare greater numbers of stellar teachers. Not all great teachers are born great; many become great because they received outstanding preparation before joining the profession. They—and their future students—deserve a foundation that prepares them to be extraordinary.

Thomas J. Lasley II is a professor and former dean of the School of Education and Allied Professions at the University of Dayton. He is a member of NCTQ's technical panel for its national review of teacher-preparation programs.