How not to judge teacher education

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Kavita Kapadia Matsko

Kavita Kapadia Matsko

Like so many interested in the challenges to improving education in Chicago and the nation, we rely heavily on the incisive reporting that Catalyst Chicago is known for and for which it has garnered numerous awards. For that reason, we were concerned that the recent report posted on its website in June about the study of teacher education programs by the National Center for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) left an incomplete and misleading impression of the validity of that study’s widely publicized findings.

Catalyst was not alone in its limited questioning of the methodology and intent behind NCTQ’s work. The report received similar treatment by the highly respected education reporter, John Merrow, on The PBS News Hour. NCTQ’s self-appointed expert stance, enhanced with a myriad of glossy reports and data visualizations, creates a smoke-and-mirrors effect that instills in the public mind some dangerous misconceptions about how best to prepare effective teachers for America’s schools.

The University of Chicago’s Urban Teacher Education Program (UChicago UTEP), along with the majority of teacher preparation programs from across the state of Illinois and the nation, declined to participate in the NCTQ/U.S. News and World Report study for two critical reasons.

First, the NCTQ review process is constructed around a deeply flawed methodology. Based largely on the inspection of a given program’s course syllabi and not at all on meaningful program outcomes, NCTQ’s ratings rest entirely on judgments of program inputs that have little or no bearing on the quality of the teachers these programs develop. NCTQ’s own audit panel questioned the validity of this approach,  suggesting that NCTQ must improve its method of “studying how accurately reading syllabi reflects the actual content of classroom instruction.”

Second, the organization itself appears to have been born with a political agenda. The higher education community has expressed deep concerns about NCTQ’s objectivity. As referenced in AACTE’s July 18 letter (2013), “NCTQ was started by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation ‘as a new entity to promote alternative certification and to break the power of the hated ed schools,’ although NCTQ claims it is no longer affiliated with its founders.” In our judgment, this aim can be achieved by indiscriminately discrediting university-based programs—the only type of teacher education program assessed in the NCTQ study.

UChicago UTEP strongly supports efforts to subject teacher preparation programs, including our own, to close scrutiny. We recognize that major structural and normative reforms are needed to improve the field and we are excited to see key developments underway. The proliferation of extended, guided, clinical requirements and regular collaboration amongst teacher preparation programs—such as the Chicago area program deans who share and examine their data with one another to make program improvements—are just two examples of positive change in progress.

However, we believe that any credible review of teacher education will draw on observations of programs in action, on interviews with alumni, current students and staff, and focus on meaningful program outcomes like retention, the quality and depth of teaching and learning, students’ enthusiasm about subject matter, and persuasive academic results. Further, such reviews must be a critical analysis of all program types—including Teach For America, The New Teacher Project, and other alternative certification programs—not just university-based programs.

Narrow lens, complex task

Of particular concern are the narrow lenses applied by NCTQ to evaluate the complex work of learning to teach. UChicago UTEP honors the situated nature of meaning-making and the learning of discrete skills, processes, and practices. Our teachers undertake intensive clinical practice under supervision by expert clinical instructors—much like the way doctors are trained through intensive residency experiences. UChicago UTEP’s aspiring teachers are enrolled in courses that link their clinical experience with a deep study of subject matter and empirical evidence about effective teacher practices. Our students explore their own identity development and the impact of culture on learning they establish in their classrooms.

The impact these intense learning experiences have on our teacher graduates and their students cannot be gleaned from a set of readings and assignments on course syllabi—NCTQ’s primary data source. It is not surprising that UChicago UTEP, like many other strong university programs, was erroneously judged using these specious criteria.
We stand firmly behind our work as a model of a highly systematic and intensive pre-service preparation effort—and we have considerable evidence to suggest we are on the right track.

Since its inception, UChicago UTEP’s cumulative five-year retention rates in urban schools are an extraordinary 90 percent—in urban districts like Chicago where our graduates teach, on average a mere 30 percent of teachers persist after their fifth year. UChicago UTEP’s hire rate is 100 percent and an additional 20 percent of our alumni have served as Lead Teachers or Clinical Instructors in our program, building a pipeline of teacher leadership in the city of Chicago. Research in-progress suggests UChicago UTEP teachers are highly skilled in literacy instruction, build strong relationships with children and families, collaborate with colleagues to improve practice, and generate persuasive academic results.

We report this information about our program not to boast, but to suggest that other programs caught in NCTQ’s specious ratings system have similar stories to tell about their successes and their outcomes.

That this review process has the potential to pit universities and programs against one another may appeal to those who believe in simplistic market-based reforms, but it does not foster the necessary collaborative efforts among teacher educators to bring about change that opens new pathways for teacher education around the country. Instead, these rankings encourage efforts to game the system, such as the common practice of manipulating application and acceptance rates. This is not a route to constructive and enduring change.

Poorly conceived ratings cannot distract us from pursuing the complex, powerful work of developing effective teachers. They can, however, remind us that we must use our voices to offer a counter-narrative against crude attacks on our work that threaten to move us backwards, and advocate for more meaningful measures to assess and recognize our worth.

We hope all engaged in and passionate about this crucial work will do the same.

Kavita Kapadia Matsko, Director of Teacher Preparation and Research
Marvin Hoffman, Associate Director (Emeritus)
University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program