Q&A with National Council on Teacher Quality

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In a controversial report released last week, the National Council on Teacher Quality slammed the majority of Illinois’ schools of education for what it sees as weak program design.

In a controversial report released last week, the National Council on Teacher Quality slammed the majority of Illinois’ schools of education for what it sees as weak program design. 

Schools of education responded by questioning the report’s research basis, its methodology, and its authors’ intentions. (A joint response from Illinois universities is here.)

Deborah Curtis, dean of the College of Education at Illinois State University (which received some of the report’s lowest ratings), called the council a group of self-appointed experts with an agenda.

And Vicki Chou, dean of the more highly ranked University of Illinois-Chicago’s College of Education, complains that programs there lost points on reading instruction because of a technicality.

“They have a list of textbooks that they deem worthy, and if your syllabus doesn’t show you are using one, you get knocked down on points,” she says. “A worrisome number of their standards don’t have a very strong research base.”

The study evaluated syllabi and textbooks from reading and math methodology classes in teacher education programs around the state, as well as course catalogs, general education and subject area course requirements, admissions policies, and other factors. Associate Editor Rebecca Harris sat down with NCTQ’s Kate Walsh and Julie Greenberg to talk about their findings.

Catalyst: Can you share some examples of the irrelevant assignments that you found in your review?

Walsh: When we try to pull them out of the syllabus, it’s sometimes hard to capture their idiocy.

Greenberg: It’s also what’s not there. The classes don’t get harder [as students get more advanced]. 

Catalyst: What are the implications of your report for urban education, specifically?

Greenberg: If there’s anything you are not prepared to teach, it is going to be a much bigger issue in a more challenging environment.

Catalyst: What did you find about classroom management training in these programs?

Greenberg: Five programs did not address the topic at all. [The rest] have survey courses, but we’re still not sure they are really doing what they should be doing. For instance, one program gives students a week-long training in a specific classroom management approach before they do student teaching.

Catalyst: You also noted an overabundance of personal reflection activities that seem disconnected from teaching practice.

Greenberg: You want to have a reflective professional. There’s reflection, and then there’s using data, collaborating with colleagues… all those real indicators that somebody is actually going to be modifying their practice. There’s no sitting down with data from an Illinois standardized test and saying, “You just found out that your students are one standard deviation below the mean. How is that going to affect your instruction?” That’s what reflection means to us.

Catalyst: Did your report factor in special programs that only some education students are eligible for? For instance, Illinois State University’s Professional Development School model, which allows teachers in training to spend nearly a full school year in the classroom?

Walsh: As a rule of thumb, we always look at the lowest common denominator. If there are three options [for a course requirement], and two are fabulous and one is the easy way out, then the school flunks. Because many people will take the easy way out.

Catalyst: How should schools of education measure the quality of student teachers’ classroom supervisors?

Greenberg: Principals would nominate the best teachers. Value-added data on their performance would be available. There would be an interview.

There are some dysfunctional elements [that prevent this]. There is a huge oversupply of teachers, especially elementary teachers, being produced. From a principal’s perspective, you’d be a fool to have student-teachers monopolize your best teacher and take them off their feet for three weeks.

Catalyst: What did you find about teacher candidates’ training in reading instruction?

Walsh: Truthfully, a lot of kids will learn to read just by the teacher wearing a paper cap. [But students in high-poverty schools] need explicit, systematic instruction. It is as objectionable to hear that folks aren’t teaching these methods in their programs as it would be to have an institution claim that smoking does not cause lung cancer.

The problem is that people think that because you have to do that very systemic instruction on decoding, it means you can’t expose kids to great literature and let them read books they are interested in. Well, you need to do both. But you can’t use good books to teach kids how to decode. You need to use very systematic curriculum, where words are controlled.

If you armed teachers with the scientific findings, you would do a great amount to reduce the number of kids who go into special ed.