Picture this: You are heading to the doctor’s office for your annual physical. As you approach her office, your doctor calls out the window, “You don’t need to come in. Just walk back and forth a few times while I watch. That should be sufficient.”
Crazy, right? You wouldn’t trust that diagnosis and might find yourself a new doctor.
That analogy is a pretty fair description of the survey and analysis released by the National Council on Teacher Quality, “Teacher Prep Review,” last week. The NCTQ report covers 608 schools and colleges of education, about half of the American programs, awards stars, issues warnings, and generally lambastes the field.
But, like your doctor looking out the window and making a diagnosis, NCTQ did not visit campuses or sit in on classes. The authors read course catalogues and syllabi and from that very limited view drew conclusions. Flawed, right?
Now go back to your doctor. Suppose she sees that you are walking with a pronounced limp and hears your rasping cough. She can be pretty confident about concluding that you are not in good health. She might not know exactly what is wrong with you, but she knows you have health problems.
That’s the weird thing about the NCTQ study: it’s a deeply flawed report that is fundamentally correct. Teacher education is just not very good, which is what the report says, even as it gets a lot of important details wrong. For example, it mislabels a lot of specific college and university programs.
Of the 608 institutions studied, only four received the top rating, four stars. Roughly 160 programs received zero stars, and another 301 just one star. Of the 608 programs, only 100 received three or more stars. Pretty grim.
Why no campus and classroom visits for NCTQ? The answer can be found in a footnote on page 78: only 1% of institutions agreed to participate. When the study was originally announced, I was in the room when the leader of one very prestigious school of education explained that her institution would not be participating because she–and most leaders–believed that the study would be biased and unfair. NCTQ’s leader, Kate Walsh, had a long history, she said, of being anti-schools of education, and she and her peers believed that Walsh was beginning from her conclusions and would be working backward to find evidence to support them.
Walsh strongly defends the study and its methods, citing a dozen pilot studies prior to beginning the survey work and the thoroughness of their analysis and review. But her own views are both strong and well-known. Not one to mince words, she said to me last year that she could not stand Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford’s teacher education program because “she’s an out-and-out liar. She gets up on stage and tells lie after lie.” (Stanford’s highly regarded programs received 1 ½ stars and 2 ½ stars, on a scale of 0-4.) 
For more, listen to Jane Williams’ interview with Kate Walsh (.mp3). Walsh tells Williams that teacher education is ‘wholesale mediocrity.’ She says that she began her research with what she calls a common assumption–teacher education was a problem–but says she conducted the study without bias. And Williams, a real pro, pushes Walsh hard on her support for Teach for America.
How can a shallow study get the big picture right? For one thing, the admissions policies are public record: only 25% of schools of education require that candidates come from the top half of their academic class. The other 75% apparently can accept anyone. (In Finland, all prospective teachers must be in the top third!)
The NCTQ study asserts that three-quarters of schools of education do not instruct prospective teachers about effective ways of teaching reading, certainly the essential foundational skill. From reading syllabi and course catalogues and not finding references to established research findings, NCTQ’s President Walsh asserts that instruction is “loosey-goosey,” with professors urging their students to “find their own ways” of teaching reading, instead of making sure they understand the importance of phonemic awareness, phonics and comprehension.
I have only anecdotal evidence in this particular area, but my experience supports Walsh.
Why does this matter? Well, our teacher training institutions graduate about 200,000 teachers every year. Those who get jobs end up teaching about 1.5 million kids in their first year. If the rookies are not well prepared, then those children are the losers. And since first year teachers are often given the worst assignments–struggling kids, perhaps children living in disadvantaged circumstances–that’s a double whammy.
In a conference call with reporters the day the report was released, Walsh said that most schools of education look down on the idea of ‘training’ for teachers. Many professors believe that ‘training creates automatons,’ she said. That makes no sense, she said, because, if teaching is a true profession like medicine and law, then teachers require training, just as doctors and lawyers do. As far as I can see, the report does not provide evidence for that assertion, so that may be just Walsh’s opinion.
Walsh believes in a market solution. People thinking about teaching will read this report and choose institutions that earned three or more stars, she said. This pool of educated consumers will force the zero-star and one-star places to shape up. Apparently she’s assuming that her study will be revised and updated every year, much like the US News & World Report rankings of colleges. And perhaps she believes that the 99% of schools of education that boycotted this time around will be shamed into participating.
I don’t think the market will solve the problem, and I don’t expect schools of education to overcome their aversion to Walsh.
It might help if schools of education were forced by their universities to raise their admission standards. Then matters would have to improve, because ed schools would have to sell themselves. Better qualified candidates would expect more from their professors.
If more of education’s heroic leaders like Larry Rosenstock of High Tech High decide to train teachers, the system will have to improve because it will have real competition.
But in addition to raising the bar for prospective teachers, we need to make it easier to be a teacher. Right now systems throw rookies into the deep end of the pool, telling them to ‘sink or swim.’ That has never made any sense, and it makes even less sense now in a time of widespread teacher bashing. Programs that provide one-year teaching internships make sense. School districts that arrange for rookies to spend their first year watching and learning make sense. Schools that make time for teachers to watch each other teach are doing the right thing. Changing how schools operate will keep good people in the system longer, and that should be our goal.
Here’s my bumper sticker: “Harder to become, easier to be”
- 1. Arthur Levine, the former President of Teachers College, Columbia, did his own study in 2006 and concluded that 10% of programs were strong, 20% were poor, and the rest–70%–mediocre. That’s slightly more optimistic than the NCTQ study. Dr. Levine, however, visited campuses and classes.↵
- 2. That debate continues. Here’s one link.↵