Oh No! Now Arne Duncan’s Going to Rate Teacher Training Programs

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced last Friday that the Obama administration plans to develop ratings of colleges of education to make them more accountable for their graduates’ performance. Motoko Rich in the NY Times reports that the U.S. Department of education will propose rules to evaluate teacher training programs “using metrics that could include the number of graduates placed in schools, as well as pass rates on licensing exams, teacher retention rates and job performance ratings of teachers,” job performance ratings that presumably take into account the scores on standardized tests of the students in the classes of the teachers being rated.

Nobody thinks teacher training programs should be unaccountable.  In her book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch devotes several pages (pp. 274-277) to the topic of strengthening the teaching profession.  Her expectations are clear and explicit:  “To raise the quality of education in our schools, states and districts must strengthen the education profession.  Ideally, teachers should have a four-year degree with a major in the subject or subjects they plan to teach… Once they are admitted into a professional education program, they should engage in a year of study of such subjects as cognitive science, literacy, child development and adolescent psychology, the sociology of the family and the community, cultural diversity, the needs of students with disabilities, the nature of testing, and the history, politics, and economics of education. They should deepen their knowledge of the subject or subjects they plan to teach, with opportunities to plan lessons and work with mentors.  They should practice teaching under the guidance of an experienced teacher.  No one should be allowed to teach who has not spent a hear in the study and practice of the profession.  Once hired, they should work closely with a mentor teacher.”

The question is not about the ongoing need to strengthen teacher training, but about the kind of metrics-based evaluation program Arne Duncan will propose to establish through Department of Education rules, which means without Congressional oversight.

In her report for the NY Times, Motoko Rich substantiates Duncan’s assertion that we must develop a metrics-based teacher training system by reminding us of a 2013 critique of colleges of education by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).  Rich has forgotten about the need to check for Orwellian names (Think StudentsFirst—Michelle Rhee; Stand for Children—Jonah Edelman; Foundation for Excellence in Education—Jeb Bush.).  NCTQ is an organization that was established in 2000 by the very conservative Thomas Fordham Foundation, according to Diane Ravitch, for the purpose of promoting “alternative certification” programs not housed in the colleges of education.  Last June, when NCTQ released the report to which Rich refers, a flurry of critiques ensued from prominent educators.

Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University and chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing,  critiqued the report from NCTQ in detail:  “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 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.”

This past winter Mike Rose, research professor at UCLA and author of the much admired book, Possible Lives, on the subject of excellent teachers, undertook to address the mass of issues around the quality of colleges of education and  to respond, in a series of three blog posts, to the NCTQ report.  Like Ravitch and Darling-Hammond, Rose believes colleges of education must always be strengthened, but he would caution us and Arne Duncan to respond with sensitivity to the task at hand: “College and university-based teacher education programs vary considerably by size, region, student body, nature and focus of curriculum, talent of instructional staff, status with home institution, balance of coursework and practice, relation with local district, and more.  Some are excellent, some are good and experimenting with ways to get better, some are weak in some respects but decent in others, some are marginal and poorly run.  The language of the current criticism of teacher ed, at least the most public language, doesn’t allow for this variability.”

Rose worries about the possibility that any new metrics for evaluating colleges of education will incorporate the standardized test scores of the public school students whose teachers’ colleges are being rated:  “The evaluation mechanism that many critics advocate—judging a program’s effectiveness by the test scores of the students taught by their graduates—seems like a fairly straightforward proposition, but, in fact, presents a host of conceptual and design problems. To be honest, I’m a little surprised that it’s being promoted with such gusto, given recent history.  Recall the multiple problems that arose with NCLB’s use of standardized tests to define achievement and determine a school’s or district’s effectiveness, and there are more recent debates about the technical complications in assessing teacher effectiveness through value-added measures.  It bespeaks of either social amnesia or technocratic enchantment that we would rush to a model driven by the standardized test score….”

Rose also addresses the bias so frequently heard in the teacher quality debate—the bias for the elite, Ivy League-trained teacher (Teach for America) and against the graduates of regional state teachers colleges, the kind of colleges that prepare the vast majority of America’s school teachers—who are neither likely to be able to afford Teachers College at Columbia University nor to travel away to Bank Street or Peabody to get an education:

“There’s an assumption in some of the reports—clearly stated in the one from NCTQ—that students interested in a teaching career are free agents, able to make the classical economists’ rational choice about benefits and losses, and act accordingly.  They are able to go to the school that will provide the greatest payoff. But… some students are not in a financial or personal position to make such a choice. The local teacher ed program is their only option. Reading these reports, one gets the sense that the authors are at a great social distance from the lives of such students.  Some of the reports also operate at a real distance from the colleges and universities they criticize. What struck me about several of the small out-of-the-way programs I visited during my travel for Possible Lives was how embedded they were in their communities, how well the faculty understood the kids in the schools, the local history, the social and economic pressures on the region. Some of the faculty themselves went to local, non-elite colleges or universities, they didn’t publish in scholarly journals, they didn’t have the bonafides of their contemporaries in snazzier institutions. But they were smart and skillful, and they provided substantial support to the novice teachers in their charge: mentoring them, meeting with them after hours, observing them teach.”

While Secretary Duncan will propose new ratings for teacher education programs, Rich reports that, “The administration’s proposals do not include any additional federal money to pay for the proposed rating systems, but about $100 million in existing funding for teacher preparation programs could be linked to their ratings.”  Why not use the $100 million to strengthen the programs themselves?

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