A new report could pressure weak education schools to make real reforms

When the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released its first comprehensive review of education programs in 2013, many K-12 education reformers were enthusiastic. Prominent news coverage and support from school superintendents called attention to the need to improve teacher preparation.

But the Council—which has advocated for teacher preparation reform since 2000—also received stringent criticism from education school officials, many of whom disputed the report’s methodology. Some claimed that NCTQ had rated programs without having access to all of the relevant materials—such as course syllabi—that would have provided a more complete picture of the programs’ quality.

There was a legitimate reason for that information shortage, however: a majority of schools did not choose to participate, leaving the Council—led by president Kate Walsh—to find workarounds via records requests and tedious research of any and all available resources.

The latest, more extensive study of America’s education schools—the 2014 Teacher Prep Review: A Review of the Nation’s Teacher Preparation Programs, published in June—increased the number of institutions reviewed by 40 percent.

That upsurge came from ramped-up information collection efforts, not greater cooperation from universities. NCTQ had to hire a team of lawyers to handle the requests and, in one state, had to spend $30,000 for the production of public documents.

The study’s authors—Julie Greenberg, Kate Walsh, and Arthur McKee—suggest that universities’ uncooperativeness and backlash over methodology are rooted in concern over receiving negative public criticism and having programs downgraded in a high-profile magazine like U.S. News & World Report, where NCTQ’s latest report was published. 

Unlike the 2013 review, which rated schools, this year’s analysis ranks each institution and “names names.” This is an approach that NCTQ hopes will aid school districts around the country in their searches for top talent. If consumers—K-12 schools and school districts that hire teachers—have better information, the report’s authors believe that the marketplace will force education schools to adopt meaningful changes.

Ranked are 1,612 elementary and secondary education programs from 1,127 colleges and universities. Only 107 (less than 7 percent) of these 1,612 programs are designated as “Top Ranked.” The authors label the overall field of teacher production an “industry of mediocrity.”

Perhaps adding to the sting of the criticism is that the majority of schools given a “Top Ranking” are public and private institutions described by NCTQ as “not traditionally considered elite or ‘high status.’” The rankings overturn conventional assumptions. The number one secondary education program on the list is at Western Governors University, a predominantly online university. And the top elementary program is at Dallas Baptist University.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia don’t have a single “Top Ranked” elementary or secondary program in the 2014 Review. In North Carolina, 47 programs at 22 schools were analyzed, and three landed in the top rankings: Elon University’s undergraduate elementary and special education programs, UNC-Chapel Hill’s graduate secondary program, and UNC-Wilmington’s undergraduate secondary program. Of the remaining 44 programs from North Carolina, 20 were strong enough to receive a national ranking, but 24 were not judged good enough to receive a numerical rank.

Immediately after publication of the latest Review, some higher education officials became defensive. In an official statement from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, president Sharon P. Robinson said that NCTQ’s decision to rank programs was a “divisive tactic.” She said that only 118 of the 1,127 reviewed colleges “fully participated” because of NCTQ’s “history of misrepresenting data.”  

And Karen Wixson, dean of UNC-Greensboro’s school of education, recently echoed that opinion. After her school’s elementary education program was listed in the bottom half of the Review and failed to receive a ranking, she issued a statement arguing that the report’s methodology “places a heavy emphasis on data that may or may not be directly related to teacher success.”

But the data emphasized by NCTQ don’t seem very controversial. The primary standards used by NCTQ to determine a program’s ranking are admissions selectivity, content preparation (i.e., are students mastering the subjects they’ll be teaching and are they adequately learning science- and research-based teaching methods?), and student teaching experiences.

With respect to selectivity, the majority of education programs aren’t choosing from the top fifty percent of the college student population. Eighty-two percent of reviewed undergraduate programs accept students with GPAs below 3.0 and 75 percent of graduate programs do not require applicants to submit GRE or MAT scores.

Regarding content preparation, the report is especially critical of elementary education programs. It states that many programs have an “anything goes” approach to reading instruction that often disregards well-established pedagogical techniques. The Review’s authors also note that mathematics coursework haphazardly mixes content with teaching methodology, and that some professors select textbooks designed for the general student, not a future teacher.

As for high school content, the authors contend that the “majority of states certify candidates to teach all [social studies] subjects…without adequately testing the candidate’s mastery of each subject.” The report recommends that policymakers copy Tennessee and Indiana, “which [require] certification and subject matter testing in every subject to be taught.”

Student teaching experiences—apprenticeships with certified teachers—are also analyzed. The main issue, say the authors, is that while students are often provided with clinical training, they don’t receive much in the way of feedback and support. “For too long,” states the report, “teacher educators have been content to simply do the necessary clerical back-and-forth with school districts to arrange classroom placements.” Only 5 percent of programs fully satisfied NCTQ’s standard.

NCTQ argues that many education programs are isolated “fiefdoms” and that teacher education as a whole lacks the governance and professional accreditation standards found in other fields. That’s why it has welcomed some recent developments aimed at improving upon the status quo.

In the last two years 33 states, according to the Council, have passed “significant” laws and regulations pertaining to teacher preparation. Seventeen states—including North Carolina—now mandate assessments “to ensure that elementary teacher candidates understand effective reading instruction.” North Carolina is also one of ten states that “connect student achievement data with teacher preparation programs” to determine which programs are helping to create the best educational outcomes. And in April, the Obama administration announced that it plans to limit federal grant money to “high-performing” education degree programs, a step that NCTQ endorses.

Kate Walsh, NCTQ’s president, has said that the Council is “encouraged by the action that has been taken by North Carolina and other states, [but] we have a lot more work to do to provide future teachers with the world-class training that both they and students deserve.”

Teacher Prep Review concludes with suggestions for deans and state policy makers, such as enhancing syllabi quality and rigor, improving student assessments and evaluations, and boosting admissions selectivity. But the recommendations for school districts, if followed, could be where the real change comes.  

By encouraging public and private K-12 schools to be pickier during the hiring process, this review may force university leaders, no matter how skeptical of NCTQ’s report, to address teacher education’s numerous shortcomings.

(Editor’s note: Kate Walsh, NCTQ president, was the guest speaker at a luncheon sponsored by the Pope Center on October 24.)