Donald E. Heller is dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University who, in this post, describes a recent written encounter with the National Council on Teacher Quality, an organization created by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in 2000 in order to promote alternative teacher certification and try to diminish the influence of education schools. Last June it published its first evaluations of teacher education programs around the country, and, not surprisingly, they were not good. Neither were many of the reviews of the methodology that the NCTQ used in coming up with their evaluations. Heller provides something of an update in this post.

By Donald E. Heller

Last week, two of my colleagues from the College of Education at Michigan State University and I wrote a commentary for Education Week about the National Council on Teacher Quality. The organization, a think tank in Washington, evaluates teacher education programs around the country and publishes ratings of those programs in conjunction with U.S. News & World Report.

The council’s first ratings were published last June based on data it had collected over the prior two years. While many colleges of education had refused to cooperate with NCTQ because of concerns that the organization had a particular political agenda – that of closing down education schools in favor of alternative teacher training programs – our college willingly cooperated and sent the organization the information it had requested.

The heart of NCTQ’s evaluation methodology is to review syllabi from university-based teacher preparation programs to see if the material covered complies with content that NCTQ has judged as being central to good teacher preparation. This may seem like a logical approach, but it has two fundamental flaws. First, we and other experts do not believe that the council’s criteria for judging programs have a sufficient research base to justify such a public and high-stakes assessment. Second, judging the quality of any college program based on reviewing syllabi alone is, as many observers have pointed out, like judging a restaurant by reading the menu alone.

The council does not visit any of the programs it rates to talk to faculty or students. It does not observe classes, or examine the outcomes of students trained in these programs. It simply reviews the syllabi to see if the content it has decided is important for prospective teachers to know is included. This is in contrast to the prevalent method of quality assurance in higher education, the accreditation process, which generally involves in-depth site visits to programs being reviewed, discussions with faculty, student, and administrators, and document reviews.

When the first NCTQ ratings were released last June, our college, like many others around the country, found numerous factual errors in the council’s review (our college’s two teacher preparation programs were rated two out of four stars; out of the over 1,000 programs rated by NCTQ, only four received four stars and another 104 earned three stars). We followed NCTQ’s instructions for correcting errors, and after sending in four pages of corrections, we were surprised to see that it had no impact on our star rating.

We were not the only ones concerned with NCTQ’s methodology; at the time the ratings were released, many other experts — including Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University on this blog  — raised concerns about them. Edward Fuller, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, published a detailed and well-developed critique of the NCTQ standards and methodology in the current issue of the Journal of Teacher Education (which,according to an abstract, lists flaws including a “narrow focus on inputs, lack of a strong research base, missing standards, omitted research, incorrect application of research findings, poor methodology, exclusion of alternative certification programs, failure to conduct member checks, and failure to use existing evidence to validate the report’s rankings.”)

Last month, NCTQ sent a request for updated information to our college. After discussing the request with my colleagues, we opted not to comply. Based on our earlier experience, we have grave concerns about the methodology used by the organization and its ability to objectively and fairly rate teacher preparation programs, so we decided not to participate in this latest effort.

In order to share our decision widely with the educational community, we described our decision in the Education Week commentary in more detail than this space allows. We were not surprised when the Education Week editor informed us that the publication would provide an opportunity for NCTQ to respond to our column. She asked if we would be willing to share our column with the council in advance, so it would have the opportunity to respond quickly. We willingly complied with this request.

What we were surprised to find was that rather than responding to our criticisms of the NCTQ methodology, Kate Walsh, president of the council, instead attacked Michigan State’s teacher preparation program in her column the following day. She did so by raising this question:

Is the field prepared to ask public schools which courses matter more for the new teachers they may one day hire: Human Diversity, Power, and Opportunity in Social Institutions, an actual required course at Michigan State University (the letter-writers’ institution) for undergraduate teacher-candidates, or Research-Based Classroom Management Strategies 101, the sort of course NCTQ seeks?

The implication is that because we train our prospective teachers about the diversity of the students they will encounter in today’s school classrooms, and the challenges those students face (which is what our course does), that we somehow are derelict in our duty of teacher training. The council apparently believes that unless a program has an entire course in classroom management, that it cannot be a quality program.

Our program does not have a separate course in classroom management; these techniques are instead embedded in the over 50 credit hours of courses (for example, in our elementary education major) students take in our college, and more importantly, in the 34-week long teaching internship required of our students.

But the important question is why NCTQ felt it had to defend its methodology by attacking our teacher preparation program? I responded to this attack in my blog, but we are still mystified why this was the tactic employed by NCTQ. We believe that we share with NCTQ the goal of improving the preparation of teachers across the country, but by singling out Michigan State for attack, we cannot understand how this goal is furthered.