What Do the Contentious New Teacher Rankings Really Mean?

New findings raise concerns over how teachers are being trained—but also over the merit of the ranking system itself.

If you’re wondering just how contentious a new set of rankings for the nation’s teacher preparation programs really are, consider this: the advocacy group that compiled them had to offer cash rewards to students for basic information such as syllabi when colleges and universities declined to provide them.

In fact, over 90 percent of the programs listed in the rankings opted not to participate in the National Council for Teacher Quality’s review and provide requested documentation about core elements, including coursework, selectivity, and practice teaching requirements.

As a result, the NCTQ—which ranked the strength the teacher preparation programs–had to gather those materials by other means, such as placing ads in campus newspapers offering monetary rewards to students. Arthur McKee, managing director of NCTQ’s teacher preparation studies, told me the going rate for a course syllabus was $25. A student teacher’s handbook might net $50.

Out of 1,127 teacher prep programs–elementary, secondary, and special education–nationwide, NCTQ had enough information to apply its ranking methodology to 836 of them. The others were left out because there wasn’t enough data, or the program was too small in size to constitute an adequate sample.

Of those that were ranked, only a handful earned a top grade, with elementary education programs overall rated significantly weaker than secondary education—specifically in the core areas of reading and mathematics. Those findings mirror the results of the debut report, and the grades for most schools were unchanged from 2013. (Worth noting: 118 institutions did opt to provide additional information to NCTQ the second time around and received a revised rating as a result.)

There’s been some fine reporting on the overall NCTQ rankings, including Stephen Sawchuk’s piece for Education Week, and Amanda Ripley making a strong case over at Slate that fixing America’s public schools requires making it tougher to become a teacher. 

NCTQ has put together a list of endorsements from former U.S. secretaries of education and current district superintendents praising the review. At the same time, there’s been plenty of pushback by schools of education arguing that the ranking don’t accurately reflect the quality and content of their training programs. One of the main complaints? NCTQ is evaluating a school’s output largely by looking at printed documents rather than evaluating college lessons in person. But site visits are not a realistic option for a survey of this size and scope, said NCTQ’s McKee. And there’s no guarantee such site visits would yield useful information, he added.

If teacher colleges don’t want to play ball with an organization that seeks to review the strength of their programs, what tools are in place to help prospective teachers and principals identify the institutions that produce the best educators?

One group, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation–CAEP–is overhauling its standards with more rigorous expectations to go into effect in 2016. (NCTQ makes a point of praising this development in its report.)

While that sounds encouraging, there is a caveat: In most states, national accreditation for teacher prep programs is voluntary. In 2013, the two national accrediting agencies joined forces to form CAEP. It’s not yet known how many programs will opt to seek CAEP’s seal of approval, especially when it’s not a state requirement.

Those new standards were created with input from teachers and are research-based, said Jim Cibulka, president of CAEP. In addition to focusing on the “inputs” such as curriculum and student-teaching expectations, CAEP will set a high bar for outcomes, Cibulka said. That will include asking institutions to track their graduates when they move into teaching jobs and get performance feedback from the employers. Programs that fall short will be required to make improvements and get support from CAEP to help them do so.

“Rigorous standards that are applied and enforced – that’s the best change strategy,” Cibulka said.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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