Proceed With Caution: New Report Falls Short in Complex Task of Evaluating Teacher Education

A report by the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ), released yesterday, raises questions and offers judgments about selected teacher education programs in the U.S. Although perhaps intended as a tool to guide program improvement and, ultimately, the quality of teaching in the nation's elementary and secondary schools, the report is deeply flawed and its findings need to be viewed with caution.

A few examples of the report's errors are enough to cause concern. First, the results are based on reviews of course requirements and course syllabi, which are not necessarily an accurate reflection of what is taught in teacher preparation programs; available literature on differences between intended and enacted curricula seems to have escaped NCTQ's attention. Furthermore, NCTQ does not link these proxy variables to observations of actual performance by teachers in elementary and secondary schools. The NCTQ report relies heavily on intuition about these issues, but our children's education deserves better: We would not want to rate medical education based on a review of published course requirements in medical schools and without examining the actual content that was delivered in university classrooms and without including evidence of practice in clinical settings.

Second, only about 10 percent of the programs that were rated actually provided NCTQ with the requested data, and there is no explanation of how institutions that did not provide data were treated. At GW, for example, we chose to not participate in the project, largely because we were uncertain about whether the methodology was attuned to the subtle differences between teacher preparation at the undergraduate and graduate levels. One question, then, is what data did NCTQ use to rate our programs and how did they obtain those data? On the other hand, NCTQ didn't acknowledge the existence of one of our biggest programs, in Special Education. Until these mysteries of commission and omission are solved, it is difficult for us to decide whether and how the report's findings might contribute to our program improvement efforts.

Third, there are many errors of fact and interpretation. For example, on the "selectivity" standard, NCTQ gives GW's programs two stars (out of four), stating that "the program... does not require a grade point average of 3.0 or higher overall or in the last two years of undergraduate coursework that provides assurance that candidates have the requisite academic talent." There is little evidence that a 3.0 GPA is a proxy for such talent and sufficient to predict performance either in graduate school or, more importantly, in the workplace after graduation. Still, at GW, 22 of the 24 students in our incoming 2013 cohort in secondary education (English, mathematics, physics, social studies, English Language Learners) had an average of 3.4. For students who do not meet the 3.0, we offer provisional status but then require them to earn a 3.0 or better during the first nine credit hours of course work. NCTQ obviously did not have this data, and apparently either did not read our bulletin or chose to ignore these subtleties. As Linda Darling-Hammond has noted, Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia got low marks on this standard too, because they don't require either a minimum GPA or a minimum GRE. Reports of other errors are starting to come in. Teachers College (Columbia), for example, was rated poorly for two programs they don't offer.

At GW we have much to be proud of in our teacher preparation programs: Our alumni have been named "teacher of the year" in a number of school systems and have received many other awards and honors, our faculty are widely recognized for their dedication and skill, and our accreditors routinely praise us for the quality of our instructional programs based on assessments that include considerable attention to actual performance.

Evaluation of teacher education is at least as complex as the evaluation of teaching, and is worthy of the best and most rigorous methods. Reports like this one ultimately trivialize the task and undermine efforts to ensure that our future teachers acquire the skills and knowledge needed for their lives in classrooms. There is surely room for improvement in the world of teacher preparation -- as there is in all professions -- but the NCTQ report provides an inadequate basis upon which to design and implement positive reforms.