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Why the NCTQ teacher prep ratings are nonsense

Linda Darling-Hammond


This op-ed was first published in the Washington Post's The Answer Sheet.

This week, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) issued a report titled: NCTQ Teacher Prep Review. Billed as a consumer’s guide, the report rates programs on a list of criteria ranging from selection and content preparation to coursework and student teaching aimed at the development of teaching skills. While the report appropriately focuses on these aspects of teacher education, it does not, unfortunately, accurately reflect the work of teacher education programs in California or nationally.

NCTQ’s methodology is a paper review of published course requirements and course syllabi against a check list that does not consider the actual quality of instruction that the programs offer, evidence of what their students learn, or whether graduates can actually teach. Concerns about the organization’s methods led most schools of education nationally and in California to decline to participate in the data collection. (NCTQ’s website indicated that fewer than 1% of programs in the country “fully cooperated” with the study.) NCTQ collected documents through websites and public records requests. The ratings published in this report are, thus, based on partial and often inaccurate data, and fail to evaluate teacher education quality.

The field’s concerns were reinforced last month when NCTQ published ratings of states’ teacher education policies which bore no relationship to the quality of their training systems or to their outcomes as measured by student achievement. In this study, the highest-achieving states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — including Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New Jersey, and Minnesota — all got grades of C or D, while low-achieving Alabama got the top rating from NCTQ. It is difficult to trust ratings that are based on criteria showing no relationship to successful teaching and learning.

In this latest study of programs, the indicators used to measure the criteria often fail to identify the aspects of practice that are most important or the actual outcomes that programs achieve. A case in point: Graduate programs at highly-selective universities like Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford got low ratings for selectivity because they do not require a minimum grade point average or GRE score, although their students in fact rank far above national averages on these measures. NCTQ was uninterested in the actual grades or test scores earned by candidates.

In addition, the degree of inaccuracy in the data is shocking. Columbia was rated highly for the selectivity of an undergraduate program that does not even exist. Stanford received low scores for the reported absence of courses in secondary mathematics education that do in fact exist (indeed candidates must take three full courses in mathematics curriculum and instruction) and are prominently displayed, along with syllabi, on its website. UC-Santa Barbara’s three courses in elementary mathematics education, four courses in the teaching of English learners, and full year of student teaching were also entirely missed, along with its entire secondary credentialing program, all prominently displayed on the website. California State University at Chico was rated poorly for presumably lacking “hands-on” instruction, even though it is well-known in the state for its hands-on learning lab and requires more than 500 hours of clinical training during its full year of graduate level preparation.

It is clear as reports come in from programs that NCTQ staff made serious mistakes in its reviews of nearly every institution. Because they refused to check the data – or even share it – with institutions ahead of time, they published badly flawed information without the fundamental concerns for accuracy that any serious research enterprise would insist upon.

In addition to these shortcomings, NCTQ’s methods are especially out of synch with California’s approach to teacher education in two ways:

  • First, while the NCTQ checklist is based largely on the design of undergraduate programs (tallying subject matter courses required during the program), California moved long ago to strengthen teacher education by requiring graduate level programs, which require subject matter competency BEFORE entering preparation. The means by which the state ascertains teachers’ competency — through college majors, approved subject matter programs, and rigorous state-developed tests — are ignored in the NCTQ ratings. 
  •  Second, while NCTQ focuses on paper requirements for inputs, California has moved toward accountability based on stronger evidence of outcomes, including rigorous tests of basic skills, content knowledge, and pedagogy. These include California’s Teacher Performance Assessments, required under SB 2042, that have made the state the first in the nation to judge teachers’ skills and abilities in real K-12 classrooms with real students. At least one of these assessments has been shown to predict teachers’ later effectiveness in raising student achievement. These outcomes are also absent from the NCTQ framework. The candidates who have made their way through all of these assessments constitute only two-thirds of those who initially set out to seek teaching credentials. 

Accurate, well-vetted information on course requirements and syllabi, plus extensive data on actual candidate qualifications, evaluations of program quality, employers’ assessments of candidates’ readiness, and graduates’ performance in classrooms are available through state and national accreditation records, as well as in-depth studies conducted by researchers. The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC) is a ready source of such data, as is the national accrediting body (the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation). CCTC received no request from NCTQ for this information.

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.” Without reliable data related to what programs and their candidates actually do, the study is not useful for driving improvement.

In contrast to the NCTQ approach, researchers and educators serious about improving preparation are focusing attention on developing accurate and reliable data about program outcomes and useful evidence of program quality. In California, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, like others across the nation, is redesigning licensing and accreditation with these goals in mind. To secure ongoing improvement, teacher educators must pursue comprehensive accountability and increased transparency in data about the outcomes of our programs and the opportunities to learn they provide.