Earlier this month, a California judge struck down legal protections of sub-par teachers, arguing that they violated a child’s right to a quality education. All the debate centered on the “last hired first fired” principle, and how soon a newly hired teacher could get tenure.
Teachers who can’t teach should not be promoted and retained, the judge concluded. What didn’t enter that debate was how those teachers became teachers in the first place like who trained them and how they were hired.
“We are never going to fire our way to a strong teaching force,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. How colleges select and prepare candidates for teaching jobs matters as much or more than how they are managed or sanctioned once on the job, she argued.
In its second annual report card released this month, NCTQ studied 836 teacher-training programs across the United States. The report concluded that by and large, they fail to filter and prepare teachers for America’s classrooms.
If NCTQ has its way, its annual rankings will soon become the gold standard for education training programs and schools that refuse to adjust their curriculum will become pariahs.
It’s an immense undertaking, Walsh said in a conference call announcing the new report, requiring the efforts of 88 staff members, as well as ancillary support from some of the most prominent statisticians in the country. The review, she said, costs $3 million a year to produce, all which is raised from philanthropy, but critics question whether the new ratings have any solid grounding.
“There is no accepted methodology for identifying strong and weak programs,” said Edward Fuller, director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis at Penn State University.
Closely aligned with a broad-based movement to reform American education, most prominently embodied in the Common Core, NCTQ leans heavily for financial support on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with additional support from dozens of major philanthropic foundations.
According to the report, 17 states do not have a single teacher training program that was rated "high quality," Walsh said. On the elementary school front, the report found that only 26 education programs delivered comprehensive elementary teacher education.
The report was compiled largely by scrutinizing syllabi and the structure of the programs. The researchers looked for specific markers, for example, whether student teaching was required to take place with mentors who had excellent teacher ratings. They also looked for requirements on the frequency of feedback during student teaching.
Some of the outcomes are surprising. One of the most elite public universities in the country, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, ranked 406th in secondary education programs, while the top five was populated with such luminaries as Fort Hays State, Furman and Henderson State University.
The upending of prestige suits NCTQ just fine. Walsh thinks the higher education establishment will come around to her organization's point of view. There are, she says, conversations going on behind the scenes, driven in part by the NCTQ push.
“While the public position of higher education hasn’t changed much, “ Walsh said, “we have plenty of evidence that we are saying is having an impact on their actions.”
Walsh says NCTQ is simply trying to align the teaching profession with what colleges and universities do to prepare teachers. There has been, she says, a long-standing gap between what schools say they need and what they get from newly minted teachers.
“That is all we are trying to do,” Walsh said. “We’ve identified the standards for what public schools need their new teachers to know and be able to do.”
The model for the NCTQ effort, Walsh said, is an initiative dating back to 1910 that addressed the need to standardize and professionalize medical school training. That study rated 155 medical school programs, Walsh said, and within a decade one-third of the medical schools in the country had been shut down: “More importantly, it precipitated a radical transformation, as the world’s worst system of preparing doctors became the world’s best," she said.
This year, NCTQ has chosen to rank the programs, as opposed to just rating them. Walsh said the theory here was to empower the “consumer” to recognize where to find quality, whether that’s a would-be teacher choosing a training program or a school district hiring teachers fresh out of college: “Our strategy is to use the power of the marketplace to force programs to recognize that it is incumbent upon them to change,” Walsh said.
The NCTQ effort is both urgently needed and carefully performed, says Amanda Ripley: “I have found NCTQ to be relatively meticulous in their work and unusually receptive to listening to their critics and changing what they are doing if it doesn't make sense,” she said.
None of the numbers cited by Walsh are very convincing to Fuller.
“Shaky Methods, Shaky Motives” was the title of Fuller’s 2013 article in "Journal of Teacher Education" that sharply criticized the NCTQ teacher prep rankings last year.
The aims of the NCTQ approach are worthwhile, Fuller conceded.
“We want to know how effective these programs are in preparing people to be effective teachers," he said. "It’s important to identify strong programs and help the weaker programs improve.”
But Fuller criticizes the NCTQ approach for working off a checklist of features in course syllabi without knowing how those syllabi play out in the classroom and without measuring whether the preferred methods translate into better teacher performance in classroom. In short, he argues, NCTQ “emphasizes inputs rather than outcomes.”
“There is not a lot of research that links inputs to outputs,” Fuller said. “We are too enamored with quantifying things. We need to include qualitative measures, which are much more costly but are the only way to get accurate information.”
Walsh argues that America has too many teachers, and that teaching should be a more prestigious profession that is harder to get into: “We have a very democratic attitude about who should qualify to become a teacher, and kids’ learning suffers for it,” Walsh said.
One key to better preparing teachers, Walsh argues, is to be more selective, making it harder to get into the profession and as a consequence more prestigious.
Ripley agrees, pointing to Finland where, she says, “Finnish teachers are not actually paid much more cash than U.S. teachers on average, but they are earning a lot more respect. Both matter, and it is a chicken-egg problem. Do you pay teachers more and then make it more selective? Or the other way around?”
In addition to scrutinizing syllabi, student teaching and other markers of quality programming, NCTQ offered other notable take aways.
For the first time this year, the report looked at alternative certification programs.
ACPs evolved to fill a teacher gap when not enough college students were graduating from education programs, and they allow would-be teachers with a bachelor's degree to get certified by demonstrating mastery of the subject, taking some teaching methods courses, and doing some mentored teaching. Some such programs are for-profit and some work through universities. It is not uncommon for a school district to operate its own certification program.
NCTQ was not impressed with what it found out about ACPs. “These independent programs,” the report noted, “typically have very low admission standards, do not ensure that candidates are prepared to teach every subject to which they could be assigned, and provide insufficient support to candidates as they take on full-time teaching responsibilities.”
Walsh also singled out elementary school reading programs as a serious gap, noting 30 percent of American kids never become successful readers.
“We have the knowledge to reduce that failure rate to between 5 and 10 percent,” Walsh said, “Bbut we are not applying it. And we are not teaching it to future teachers.”