POLITICS
06/18/2013 12:00 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2013

Teacher Preparation Program Rankings Make U.S. News Debut

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Kate Walsh wants to bust up the teacher preparation market.

That's why on Tuesday her group, the National Center for Teaching Quality, is releasing its first ranking of teacher preparation programs on the U.S. News & World Report website. The nearly across-the-board extremely low scores pull back the curtain on "an industry of mediocrity," according to a report released in conjunction with the rankings.

"The field of teacher preparation has rejected any notion that its role is to train the next generation of teachers," the authors write. "Any training regimen in classroom management or reading instruction runs the risk, the field worries, of new teachers pulling from a fixed bag of tricks rather than considering each class as something new and unique."

NCTQ's uses a four-star rating system based on training programs' curricula, syllabi and admissions standards. Less than 10 percent of the programs rated earn three stars or more. Only four programs, Lipscomb, Vanderbilt, Furman University and Ohio State University, earned four stars.

NCTQ, a Washington-based think tank that receives money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and advocates for tougher teacher evaluations, has spent eight years studying 1,130 institutions that prepare teachers for the classroom. (The U.S. News report includes rankings for 608 schools; an additional 522 will be available on NCTQ's web site). The rankings were inspired by a 1910 evaluation of the nation's medical schools which "led to consolidations and upgrades that transformed the system of training doctors into the world's best," the report's authors wrote.

The ratings come after years of public sniping among policymakers, teachers unions and educators about the fate of the teaching profession. A group known as "education reformers" have argued that because teacher quality is the biggest in-school variable when it comes to helping students learn, teachers must be sorted in accordance with their abilities and their students' test scores. Making the profession more "serious," the argue, will draw better candidates to classrooms.

Part of that drive is reforming the schools that produce teachers. Teachers unions and politicians alike have recognized education schools as possible sites of improvement, with the Obama administration and the American Federation of Teachers recently releasing reports on the topic.

States are getting in on the action, too: Earlier this month, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) signed legislation that would make it harder to become a teacher.

"A key part of raising the education profession is related to who we attract the best candidates into teacher preparation programs in the first place," Markell said in an interview. "We look to Singapore and Korea, and 100 percent of their teachers come from the top third of their college graduates. The equivalent figure in the U.S. is 23 percent."

Last week, a panel organized by the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation approved a new set of teacher preparation school accreditation standards, which calls for teachers to be measured, in part, by their students' test scores. But NCTQ's Walsh thinks these efforts don't go far enough.

"Accreditation reform is very much needed, but there is a certain amount of herding cats involved, so I'm not optimistic," she said.

NCTQ found only one-quarter of teacher training programs require applicants to come from the top half of their classes. It also found that few programs are preparing prospective teachers for the Common Core State Standards, and that 75 percent of programs aren't teaching teachers specific methods of instruction "that could substantially lower the number of children who never become proficient readers." Instead, they're expecting trainees to develop their own teaching philosophies.

"As if a 21-year-old could have their own philosophy about reading," Walsh said. "In any other field, this would be malpractice. If you don't acknowledge that there are core skills, anything goes."

NCTQ faced severe resistance in its quest to gather materials about the institutions included in the report; in a few states, the organization even had to sue to gain access to schools' syllabi. Even in advance of the report's release, representatives of those institutions pushed back.

Already, education groups are criticizing the report for its consumer-alert approach and methodology.

Weingarten, the president of the AFT, which represents some education school faculty members, called the ranking system a "gimmick" that shirks "professionally-accepted standards." She said the report's questions overlap with the AFT's focus on improving the sector, but the union "would prefer to collaborate ... instead of talking about a punitive approach to shame and blame institutions."

In advance of the report, New York University released its own training materials for public viewing. “We don’t agree with NCTQ’s approach because we believe that teacher education is a dynamic and developmental process that can’t be judged simply based on syllabi and textbooks,” said Dean Mary Brabeck, in a statement.

But the rankings garnered early, if tepid, support from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

"NCTQ deserves praise for working to give consumers -- both teacher candidates and districts -- better information to use in selecting the most effective teacher preparation programs," Duncan said in a statement provided to HuffPost. "As the classroom effectiveness of the teachers trained in these programs is better understood, I’m confident that NCTQ will continue working to validate and improve these ratings."

Michelle Rhee, the former Washington schools chief who implemented tougher teacher evaluations there, provided more enthusiastic praise. “NCTQ's report on teacher preparation programs, with its groundbreaking scope and approach, provides exactly the kind of information that teachers, districts, and policymakers need to guide better decision-making," she said. "Creating high quality traditional prep programs are key to consistently putting effective teachers in front of kids.”

Some think the report uses too little hard data. Bill McDiarmid, the dean of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill's education school, says the report should have used information associated with the test scores of students of teacher training program graduates to evaluate the programs themselves. (NCTQ's representatives said it was hard to find statistically significant test results tied to specific institutions in North Carolina.)

"What's going to help us is seeing what our students do once they're in a classroom, how much their students are learning, and how much the graduates of our programs are contributing to learning," McDiarmid said. "I don't want to be defensive -- I'm concerned about what's the data that will help us do a better job, but reports like this don't really help."

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