New Guidelines for Teacher Training

On June 23, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), the organization that accredits most of the nation’s education schools, announced a revision of its accrediting guidelines. It’s the first major revision in ten years.

It is not surprising that NCATE made changes that are supposed to ensure quality in teacher education programs and help them attain “excellence.” In 2006, NCATE received unexpected criticism of its standard requiring education schools to evaluate the “dispositions” of students toward vague concepts such as “social justice” and “diversity.” It seemed that only students with “proper” views were to be allowed to continue their studies toward a teaching career. After the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education called attention to what amounted to an ideological litmus test for entry into teaching, NCATE dropped that standard.

Even worse was the blistering (and also unexpected) criticism of NCATE in Arthur Levine’s 2006 report on teacher preparation programs (Educating School Teachers). That report attracted much national attention because Levine was formerly the president of Teachers College at Columbia University, an education “insider” no one could accuse of ignorance or bias.

His report stated that most education schools are engaged in the “pursuit of irrelevance” and said that accreditation does nothing to assure program quality. Levine’s research team found no significant difference in mathematics or reading achievement in students taught by teachers educated at NCATE- and non-NCATE-accredited institutions. That was a staggering blow to the organization’s prestige.

The group’s new president, James Cibulka, hopes the new guidelines will repair the damage and persuade people that NCATE accreditation can lead to improving teacher education. The new guidelines, described in a white paper, “Meeting Urgent National Needs in P-12 Education: Improving Relevance, Evidence, and Performance in Teacher Preparation” create two alternative pathways to accreditation. Education schools must demonstrate either that they are on track to reach an “excellent” level of performance or that they will “successfully complete a challenging transformation initiative.” The major purpose of these two tracks is to provide a distinction between higher and lower quality education schools—in essence, a pat on the back for the best-performing schools and an improvement plan in place for the rest.

Among other requirements, education schools must address the “critical needs of P-12 schools, such as recruiting talented teachers and bolstering teacher retention,” strengthen the clinical focus of their programs, demonstrate the impact of their programs and graduates on student learning, and increase knowledge about what works in teacher education to improve student learning. (For those unfamiliar with the latest terminology, the “P” in P-12 means pre-kindergarten.)

All these “transformative” criteria look admirable at first blush. Teacher candidates are apt to learn more if their coursework is more closely connected to their clinical experiences and the P-12 school’s priorities than to the theoretical and often irrelevant coursework that typically precedes student teaching. NCATE deserves applause for insisting that evidence on how well K-12 students are learning should be the central focus of the pedagogical coursework taken by prospective teachers, as well as of their student teaching evaluations.

The problem with NCATE’s white paper is what it doesn’t say.

One reads the paper in vain for any mention of increasing academic coursework requirements for K-8 teacher candidates. As the National Mathematics Advisory Panel found, the common characteristic of effective teachers is a deep knowledge of the subject they teach. But nothing in NCATE’s new guidelines ensures that prospective teachers, especially for elementary and middle school, will have the academic background necessary to teach the subjects they will be expected to.

An even more serious problem we face is raising the academic caliber of those who want to become teachers. Finland, a nation with very high student achievement levels, draws its teachers from the top 10 percent of its college graduates, and its teacher training programs admit only 15% of those who apply. In contrast, America draws its elementary teachers mostly from the bottom 30 percent of high school graduates who go to college. The generally low or non-existent admissions standards of our education schools were highlighted in the Levine report, but NCATE’s revised guidelines don’t address this issue.

Strangely, NCATE says that education schools must help P-12 schools recruit talented teachers, but doesn’t require them to attract academically talented undergraduates to their programs. Nor does it require those they do attract to take strong coursework in academic disciplines.

In fact, its requirement of “a comprehensive year-long teaching residency” during the student’s senior year may drive academically strong undergraduates away from teaching altogether because it will deprive undergraduates admitted to teacher preparation programs of a full year of academic coursework in upper level classes, especially in their major. That won’t help to raise the level of teachers’ subject matter knowledge.

Even though the new guidelines aim at increased knowledge about “what works to improve student learning,” there’s nothing in the new NCATE standards about using what is already known about what works. That’s especially true in beginning reading instruction. The research evidence is clear that techniques such as phonics and direct instruction are effective, but they don’t tend to be taught in education schools.

NCATE implies that attainment of a body of knowledge about what works lies somewhere in the distant future, with its development contingent upon a heavy and regular stream of funding of education school faculty in research-oriented universities. But optimism about breakthroughs from educational research is misplaced. Educational researchers have an extremely poor track record of producing quality work that can improve teaching practice. For example, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel’s 2008 report found little value in the vast majority of studies it examined.

If accreditation is to improve the quality of our teacher preparation programs, the most important step must be a dramatic expansion of the organizations that supply the individuals who review education school programs and the incorporation of their standards into the process. The problem is that NCATE is composed only of educational, not discipline-based, organizations. That is, it doesn’t include organizations devoted to mathematics, science, foreign languages, history, government, geography, and so on.

The absence of subject matter experts on review teams keeps constructivist, anti-content theories about teaching dominant in our education schools and makes it easier for NCATE to avoid criticizing academically weak teacher preparation programs. Until the reviewers who participate in accreditation reviews bring a strong academic perspective to their observations, NCATE won’t be able to upgrade the quality of our teaching corps.

These new guidelines are far from sufficient, but we can hope they are just the beginning. The goal of NCATE’s new president—to use accreditation to improve the quality of our teacher preparation programs—should be applauded. There are still mountains to move.