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.

It remains to be seen what the CAEP ratings will yield, but they’ll have to do a lot to surprise the education community as much as it was by NCTQ’s rankings, which left out Ivy Leagues and other big-name programs that routinely take the top spot in U.S. News & World Report’s roundup – schools that traditionally have strong reputations for excellence. Lesser-known regional programs instead fill the top ranks.

Another surprise with the NCTQ rankings: Western Governors University, a nonprofit online program, was ranked No. 1 for secondary education. In addition to being a virtual program, WGU is competency-based, which means students advance as soon as they’ve demonstrated mastery, rather than having to complete a predetermined number of course hours.

While WGU’s classes are delivered virtually, they take their practice teaching program “very seriously,” McKee said, with coordinators on the ground supervising in each state. WGU also makes sure to pair its student teachers with classroom veterans who have both a track record of teaching excellence and the capacity to be strong mentors, according to McKee. While NCTQ found the program does has room for improvement, particularly when it comes to preparing math teachers, there are lessons from its successes that could be applied to traditional bricks-and-mortar teacher colleges, McKee said.

Mistilina Sato, an associate professor of education at the University of Minnesota, said she was surprised to see her school listed in NCTQ rankings, given that only information shared was the course syllabi. And that was only done at the instruction of the institution’s general counsel, Sato said. Rather than focus on an outside group’s rating, the university is putting its energies into better tracking outcomes for its graduates, Sato said–a strategy in alignment with the new expectations of CAEP.

“We’re interested in output: Are our students prepared when they leave us, are school districts hiring our graduates because they think they’re high quality, are students learning with our graduates in the classroom?’” Sato said. “We want a more complex view around the quality of the teacher’s preparation.”

WGU’s Teachers College also plans to seek CAEP certification and has its first visit scheduled for 2018, said Phil Schmidt, dean of WGU’s Teachers College. In the meantime, WGU tracks its graduates nationally through employer satisfaction surveys. In Utah, WGU is keeping tabs on its graduates as they advance from a basic to a more advanced teaching license. And Schmidt told me there’s the potential of obtaining academic performance data for the pupils of WGU teachers in Tennessee.

NCTQ argues that lax state regulations are a big part of the problem (in 2011 U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called it “laughable” that since 1999 over half of the states hadn’t rated even one of their teacher prep program’s as inferior). The new rankings make a special point of praising states–including Tennessee and Louisiana—where NCTQ says stricter guidelines are making a difference in the quality of teacher education. The Obama administration has also put a spotlight on teacher prep, calling for a $185-million plan to push states to improve teacher training overall, provide incentives to shut down the weakest programs, and raise the bar for state licensing exams.

With most states revamping expectations for teacher job performance, including putting stricter evaluation models in place and tying student achievement to tenure, it’s unfair to not also ramp up the requirements for teacher training, Walsh said.

One recent study found that many incoming U.S. educators may be poorly prepared to teach the new Common Core math standards because they’re not taking the kind of high-level math courses teachers in high-performing nations do.

“We have very low expectations,” Walsh said. “We’ve made teaching the easiest job to get into in terms of preparation, and yet it’s one of the hardest jobs there is.”

This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.