A Teachable Moment

Columnist and author Thomas Sowell was once asked, “If you could snap your fingers and make one big change in the country, what would give you the most satisfaction?” He replied: Do away with schools of education and departments of education. Close them down.”

Although they’re not quite ready to join Sowell in breaking out the torches and pitchforks, the journalists at U.S. News and World Report and concerned citizens at the nonprofit education reform group the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) have teamed up to develop a system for rating teacher preparation programs.

But schools of education are fleeing the ratings like water in the Red Sea before the staff of Moses.

In February, 37 education school deans, presidents, and directors sent a public protest letter to U.S. News & World Report editor Brian Kelly. Representing schools such as Columbia, Harvard, Iowa State, and Ohio State, they expressed discontent with a number of the project’s components, such as NCTQ’s unwillingness to disclose the precise details of how schools will be scored.

They were further alarmed that any school that declined to participate would get a failing grade, as the original U.S. News/NCTQ publicity indicated. The deans and presidents argued that this would be “inconsistent with professional journalistic practices.” (Following the outcry, the policy was changed. Uncooperative schools will receive an estimated grade based on known data).

The turmoil heated up again just last week when Education Week pointed out that four state public university systems—New York, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Kentucky—have refused to participate voluntarily.

The education college leaders don’t think that a new set of standards is needed. They claim that there already are sufficient standards of quality.  Specifically, in the early 1990s, the Council of Chief State Schools Officers and the National Governors Association came up with standards called the New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (or InTASC). The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), the major accrediting body for colleges of education, relies heavily on these standards in the accreditation process.

NCTQ president Kate Walsh remains unimpressed:  “[I]f these standards, first developed in 1992, were going to have a major impact on the field of teacher preparation, they would have done so by now,” she wrote in a letter responding to the criticism. The InTASC standards  “permit so much variation in interpretation,” Walsh wrote, “as to provide no firm basis for determining whether programs have met them.”

According to Arthur McKee, director of the U.S. News/NCTQ project, current accountability methods are not cutting it. The accreditation of schools of education is “being done almost entirely by autopilot,” he said, referring to a lack of scrutiny. “It’s not really good for standards and there’s not a whole lot of accountability being applied.”

U.S. News is scheduled to publish the review, developed and implemented by NCTQ, in the fall of 2012.  Schools will be rated but not ranked, as they are in other U.S. News higher education comparisons. The review will assign a letter grade (A, B, C, D, or F) to each college of education based on 17 standards. Each standard has one or more indicators to clarify how a school can meet each standard. For example, a student teacher must be “observed at least five times at regular intervals during the semester” to meet the standard for student teaching. How each standard and indicator will be scored, however, has not been released.

One of NCTQ’s areas of focus will be determining whether or not elementary education programs are teaching the most effective methods of reading instruction (the “science of reading”). These involve five components: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies. “That,” McKee said, “is the specificity we can get to.”

Other approaches, such as the recently popular “whole language” method, have had less-than-stellar results. The “whole language” approach’s failure becomes clear, wrote psychologist Louisa Moats in 2007, “when they [students] attempt to read an unfamiliar text for the first time and are stymied.”

Despite the poor showing of such methods, many education schools hold onto them. An NCTQ study of Illinois colleges of education found that only 38 out of over 100 schools teach the science of reading. NCTQ hopes to prod colleges of education back towards more proven methods.

In response to the universities that have opted out, NCTQ officials say that public universities that refuse to participate will still be reviewed; NCTQ will simply use open records laws to obtain the documents they seek, such as course syllabi and student-teacher manuals.

Public institutions make up about 600 out of the roughly 1000 institutions in the review, says Arthur McKee. That leaves 400 or so private institutions, such as Wake Forest’s education department (which has declined to participate voluntarily, professor Ann Cunningham confirmed via email), that don’t fall under the same open records laws. For uncooperative private schools, NCTQ intends to make estimates based on the variables they are able to find. “The review is most definitely going to proceed,” McKee said.

But will it make much difference? Some education reformers are pessimistic. The John Locke Foundation’s education expert Terry Stoops, for instance, cited the current U.S. News ranking system for graduate schools of education as a reason to doubt the effectiveness of the new ratings.  U.S. News combines peer assessment, research activity, student selectivity, and several other factors, to evaluate graduate schools of education.

One graduate school that U.S. News ranked fourth nationally—Stanford’s—was so bad that a charter school it operated was shut down after being labeled a failure. The new methodology is substantially different, though, so it might succeed where the graduate school rankings have not.

Sandra Stotsky, a professor in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, said the measure won’t fix one of the biggest problems in education schools—the fact that future elementary teachers are generally academically lower quality undergraduate students. U.S. News and NCTQ “are not going deep enough to get at the first big problem in this country,” which she says is “who is allowed to get into a teacher prep program.”

Other education school observers see cause for guarded optimism. Education reformer George Cunningham says he is “inclined to be sympathetic to” the U.S. News/NCTQ project. Cunningham sees education colleges’ focus on unproven (and counterproductive, as he argued in a 2008 paper for the Pope Center) philosophy about teaching as the key problem of education schools today.

“Instead of focusing on ideology and philosophy, [the new rating system] focuses on content,” Cunningham said approvingly. For example, “the standard for reading instruction specifies that the program must include the essential five components of reading instruction. Although it is not explicitly stated,” he noted, “this is code for requiring a non-‘whole-language’ approach to reading instruction.”

The rest of the U.S. News/NCTQ standards and indicators, however, are “far too vague,” Cunningham thinks, and their effectiveness will be heavily dependent on how they are to be interpreted in practice.

John E. Stone, president of the Education Consumers Foundation, an education reform group, is also cautiously optimistic. Like Cunningham, Stone believes that the focus of education schools is all wrong and has led to mediocre performance in the classroom. “Very little of that which is taught to teachers has been rigorously tested to determine its impact on student learning,” he said.

Stone noted that Congress even set up an agency—the What Works Clearinghouse—to disseminate information on which teaching practices produce the best academic outcomes, but, based on survey data, education professors seem to be largely ignoring it. “In the consuming public’s view,” Stone remarked, schooling is counted as a failure “if it fails to produce acceptable levels of objectively measured student achievement.” Education schools haven’t been focusing on achievement.

One reason for the disappointment expressed by Stone and Cunningham is the fact that the new ratings cannot track the value added by teachers from different education schools to determine their effectiveness. Only three states (Tennessee, Louisiana, and Florida) currently keep track annually (though UNC kept track one year, revealing that Teach for America teachers were running circles around education school graduates), and a national measure isn’t likely to be implemented anytime soon.

While few have high hopes for the new rating system, it may be a step in the right direction. “If it accomplishes nothing else,” Stone offered, “the U.S. News/National Council for Teacher Quality rankings will shine a much-needed light on what colleges of education are doing.” That, it seems, would be worth doing in itself.