The skinny on the NCTQ Teacher Prep Review

June 19, 2013


The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a Washington-based think tank, issued its long-awaited Teacher Prep Review report yesterday.  For education schools around the country, that is not “long-awaited” as in, “Oh boy, we’re really excited to see this report finally come out.”  It was more a reaction of, “Let’s see just how bad the news is.”  And for most education schools and departments around the country – over 600 of them had programs rated by NCTQ – the news was at least as bad as expected.

The Teacher Prep Review, which has been underway for a couple of years, had received widespread criticism even before the report was issued.  Objections have focused largely on the methodology used by NCTQ, which revolves mostly around a review of syllabi and other teaching materials from courses in teacher preparation programs.  There have also been criticisms of the coercive nature of the study; NCTQ did not invite institutions to participate, but instead forced them to by utilizing lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests to gain access to the materials at public colleges and universities that refused to provide them voluntarily.  Others have pointed to the perception that NCTQ, largely because of funding it has received from some foundations deemed to be politically conservative, has a particular agenda it is pursuing.  That agenda is to shut down traditional teacher preparation programs in favor of alternative certification programs, such as Teach for America.

The NCTQ effort has received attention in part because it has partnered with U.S. News & World Report, with the magazine agreeing to use the NCTQ assessment as the basis of a new addition to its numerous college ratings guides, this one focused on teacher preparation programs.

The NCTQ study uses a four-star system to rate over 1,200 elementary, secondary, and special education programs across those 1,130 higher education institutions.  Four stars places a program on the “Dean’s List,” three gets you on the “Honor Roll,” and zero stars means a program is marked with a “Consumer Alert” label, accompanied by a presumably familiar-to-all yellow triangle warning sign.  Ratings of two or fewer stars are labeled by NCTQ as connoting “at best, mediocrity.”  Of the 1,200 programs only four, or 0.3 percent, earned a perfect four-star rating.  Only 105, or 9 percent, received three stars.  For the rest of us, we’re mired in mediocrity.

Both in anticipation of the release of the report, as well as in response to it, numerous organizations and higher education institutions – including our college – issued statements criticizing the study.  The methodology used by NCTQ, which I agree with many others is seriously flawed, as we said in our statement, has continued to be the focus of the attacks.  Not only is the focus on reviewing syllabi and other teaching materials a poor way to assess program quality (as two astute observers have said here and here, that is like trying to judge the quality of a restaurant by reading its menu), but the organization has refused to share with the institutions it was rating or anyone else the scoring rubrics used to determine how many stars each program would receive in each of the categories reviewed.

One of the most detailed and well thought-out critiques of the report was written by Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University and chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, and published in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.  Darling-Hammond, like many others, points out the methodological flaws with the report, but also goes beyond that to highlight some of the absurd errors in the study, including the finding that Teachers College’s undergraduate elementary and secondary education programs received four stars for their selectivity – even though the institution doesn’t even have undergraduate programs.  Darling-Hammond concluded her review by stating, “Unfortunately, the answer to the question of what we can learn about teacher education quality from the NCTQ report on Teacher Prep is ‘not much.’ ”  [Update 6/20/13: Darling-Hammond published in today’s Washington Post a more detailed explanation of the errors in the NCTQ report.]

Here in the College of Education at Michigan State, we received two stars for both our undergraduate elementary and undergraduate secondary education programs, which caught us somewhat by surprise, given the high regard with which our programs are held and which we highlighted in our statement.  We find ourselves in good company; other programs with two or fewer stars were found at some of the nation’s most well-respected education schools as well, including the U. of Michigan, Stanford, UCLA, Berkeley, UPenn, and the U. of Wisconsin-Madison.  One could argue that these reputations, including our own, are built around research and graduate education.  In fact, these are the focus of the U.S. News & World Report rankings of education schools (as distinct from the new ratings, which focus just on teacher preparation programs), in which we have done quite well.  But as I pointed out in our statement about the NCTQ report, “The same faculty members who teach and direct these graduate programs also oversee and teach in our undergraduate teacher preparation programs.”

As we looked at the information NCTQ provided about its assessment of our programs, it was difficult to determine how we ended up with two stars, given the absence of any details on the scoring rubric used.  But from the comments provided, we were able to determine that NCTQ made factual errors in their review of our two programs.  It is impossible to tell whether changing this information would result in a change to our overall rating.  The truth is that it makes little difference to us, because we do not believe the study carries any credibility with those who have responsibility for assessing teacher education programs.  This includes accreditors, institutional leadership, state regulators, and the constituents we serve in school districts around the country and who hire our graduates.

Not surprisingly, the release of the report received a fair amount of attention in both the trade press and the general press.  Many of the stories parroted the NCTQ party line, that “. . . a vast majority of teacher preparation programs do not give aspiring teachers adequate return on their investment of time and tuition dollars.”  But many others were more balanced – including a local story in the Detroit Free Press and a national story in Education Week – and sought the views of knowledgeable people who could explain why the NCTQ report is not the last word on the subject, and in the end, is a pretty thin assessment of teacher education around the country.