Reviewed by Mary McLaughlin, Ma-TESOL; M.S. SpEd
“Widespread malpractice.” This is the description used by Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), to describe what occurs in some of the country’s teacher education programs. She claims she is dedicated to exposing teacher preparation courses that do not address the essential aspects of classroom teaching. Areas she is concerned about include how to teach reading and other core curricular areas, how to analyze student data, and how to manage classrooms. Toward this end, her organization has established criteria and analyzed the course offerings of about 1,200 credential programs. The results of this analysis are contained within its inaugural Teacher Prep Review 2013 Report.
The Making of the NCTQ Honor Roll
The findings, showcased on the Teacher Prep Honor Roll website, take the form of a list of what the NCTQ deems the nation’s top undergraduate and graduate education programs. In all, the reviewers singled out 105 stand-out institutions to give the spotlight to, awarding them ratings of three or more stars out of a total of four. Among the criteria NCTQ used for rating programs was an institution’s reputation for recruiting talented students, preparing those students with a strong pedagogical and content knowledge background, and guiding them through structured, mentored opportunities to practice teaching.
These results prove interesting, and not only because they help would-be educators zero in on institutions that serve their goals. At first glance, it might seem as if the NCTQ Honor Roll has several omissions. It turns out, however, that these are intentional. In essence, the organization’s findings diverge greatly from those of the go-to tool for many students, U. S. News & World Report’s list of Best Education Schools.
Background of U.S. News & World Report Ratings
Since 1983, college-bound students have used the U.S. News ratings to help them narrow down their choices of where to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees. In those days, the magazine sent out surveys to college presidents and asked for their perceptions of the best colleges in the country. By 1988, U.S. News added statistical data to its rating algorithm.
The popularity of this simple list grew. The magazine expanded over the years to include ratings in different areas of specialization. Today, there are U.S. News ratings for graduate schools, online graduate education programs, and more. U.S. News data research director Robert J. Morse has called these rankings, “…the 800-pound gorilla of American higher education, important enough to be the subject of doctoral dissertations, academic papers and conferences, endless debate, and constant media coverage.”
Comparing the Rankings
Perhaps this gorilla-like presence is what has led to U.S. News missing out on some up-and-comers in graduate education and teacher preparation. Of course, noteworthy programs do make it to the lists for 2013 produced by both U.S. News and the NCTQ. For example, Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University is #1 for U.S. News and makes the Dean’s List (the highest possible ranking) for the NCTQ. Another Tennessee institution, Lipscomb University, makes it to the NCTQ Dean’s List but appears nowhere within the top 100 rankings of graduate education programs by U.S. News. Only two other schools are on NCTQ’s Dean’s List: South Carolina’s Furman University (also not in U.S. News’ top 100) and Ohio State University (a respectable #16 on the U.S. News list).
NCTQ has also established another top echelon of 13 schools that it highlights for their multiple strong education and teacher preparation programs that earn three or more stars. The standout of these schools is City University of New York – Hunter College, which has three highly-rated offerings at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Hunter College, though, is nowhere to be found in the U.S. News top 100 list, nor is City University of New York – Lehman College, another of NCTQ’s top 13. In fact, the only mention of the CUNY system by U.S. News is its rating of its Graduate Center, barely squeezing in at #100.
In Texas, Dallas Baptist University makes NCTQ’s top 13, but does not make the top 100 of U.S. News. Likewise, one Virginia school – Longwood University – is in the lucky 13, but is not to be found in the U.S. News rankings. In Indiana, Purdue University’s College of Education manages to make NCTQ’s Multiple Strong Programs list as well as U.S. News’ rankings, but it is relegated to #32 for the latter. Just edging into the U.S. News top 100 at #91 is the University of Central Florida, which is solidly ensconced in NCTQ’s top 13. Another southern institution in the 13 best programs is the University of Georgia, way down south at #43 on the U.S. News list. Even lower is the University of Kentucky, at the #63 spot in U.S. News while maintaining a top 13 status for NCTQ. Another large discrepancy can be seen in the evaluation of the College of Education at the University of Memphis: at one and the same time in NCTQ’s top 13 and at #177 according to U.S. News. Rounding out NCTQ’s 13 Multiple Strong Programs list is the University of Maryland – College Park, which manages a #27 spot on the U.S. News ratings.
So at first glance, it looks as if U.S. News may have missed a few notable teacher preparation programs in the United States. However, U.S. News has also fingered a number of programs that do not appear in the NCTQ’s top rankings. One of the most surprising results has to be #2: John Hopkins University in Maryland, a well-established institution that appears nowhere on the NCTQ list. It is not alone: #3 – Harvard University – is also absent, as is another recognizable name, Stanford University (#5 on U.S. News).
The University of Texas-Austin, at #4, does manage to make it to the NCTQ Honor Roll, along with seven other Texas institutions. Another famous education school, Teachers College at Columbia University, always the darling of the U.S. News rankings and solid at #6, oddly does not appear on any of the NCTQ’s top program lists. Both ratings systems agree on the University of Pennsylvania, placing it both at #7 and also on the NCTQ Honor Roll.
In another surprising development, U.S. News places the University of California- Los Angeles at #8, yet the NCTQ not only does not recommend it, but instead bestows Honor Roll status upon three other institutions in the University of California System (UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, UC San Diego). NCTQ has not identified a single Oregon institution as offering a top teacher-education program, while U.S. News has awarded the University of Oregon-Eugene a #8 position, tied with UCLA. Rounding out the U.S. News top 10 graduate education rankings is the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a favorite in many of U.S. News‘ ratings. Like others, it is strangely absent from the NCTQ list, though the University of Wisconsin-Stout does appear on the NCTQ Honor Roll.
Scrutinizing Teacher Education
In an interesting development, Brian Kelly, the editor of U.S. News & World Report, has penned an editorial (June 18, 2013), Teacher Prep Colleges Are Failing the Teachers, in which he appears to support NCTQ’s independent evaluation, in spite of the divergence of its results from those of his own magazine. He commends the 18 standards used by the NCTQ to assess quality and points out that teacher education programs have, in general, escaped the scrutiny of evaluators, including those at U.S. News. Further, he underscores that the two ratings systems are based on completely different algorithms and methodologies. In essence, U.S. News compares academic research and scholarship coming from each graduate education program to the research output coming from other programs. In contrast, the NCTQ model separately evaluates and rates the previously-described aspects of each teacher preparation program.
Finally, Kelly adds that U.S. News only displays the top offerings from the 278 graduate schools that award a doctoral degree in education, leaving out many excellent institutions that award teaching certificates along with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Room for Improvement
What is clear from these findings is that there is always room for improvement of assessments of graduate education and teacher certification. In fact, the NCTQ and its rating system have generated some healthy criticism. According to Arthur Levine, a past president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, the NCTQ’s approach is problematic, because it is not based on actual data. In Claudio Sanchez’s NPR report, Study: Teacher Prep Programs Get Failing Marks, Levine says he would have to grade the NCTQ report as “incomplete.” The problem is that NCTQ focuses on course descriptions rather than evaluating how teacher training programs prepare their students for real-world teaching situations.
Writing for The Washington Post blog, education reporter Valerie Strauss has taken this critique a step further. In her piece, Why the NCTQ teacher prep ratings are nonsense, she reports that, just as some universities opt out of the U.S. News rankings, others have opted out of the NCTQ’s. The reason has to do with a corporate-influenced school reform agenda behind NCTQ funding, as well as deeply flawed analysis and wildly inaccurate data. She cites several gaps in data collection and echoes Levine’s criticism regarding lack of data analysis.
Ultimately, the various rating systems will always have their proponents and their detractors. At best, the ranking lists are useful only as guidelines for would-be teachers. They provide a loose framework of standards along with unavoidably biased assessments of how well institutions meet those standards. Examining the criteria for determining ratings is left as an exercise for students to help them identify what they value and how they wish to focus their studies.