By John Sener
Lyndsey Layton’s article1 on the NCTQ Teacher Prep Review2 actually has a new message: How to use rankings to bash teacher training programs. And the larger message is: As a society, Americans still really don’t know how to value education.
Is there lots of room for improvement? Sure. But tellingly, the article mentions the stat about how few U.S. teachers graduated in the top third of their class (more rankings), compared to countries whose students lead the world on international exams (yet more rankings!). Yet not a word on the possible causes for this — you know, little things like teacher pay, prestige, professionalization, or other features that reflect a culture that knows how to value education.
All you really need to know about the study is this sentence: “The organization did not visit the schools or interview students and faculty.” Of course, it doesn’t help that the WaPo article uncritically accepts the criteria used by the study, referring to “admissions standards and inspected syllabuses, textbooks and course requirements.” Imagine how long a restaurant critic would last if s/he bestowed rankings on eateries without actually visiting (“But I looked carefully at the menus! And I inspected their cookbooks and the reservation policies!”).
The actual “specialized scoring methodology” used by the study is very detailed but apparently very oriented toward meeting the Common Core standards:
- Selection Criteria
- Early Reading
- English Language Learners
- Struggling Readers
- Common Core Elementary Mathematics
- Common Core Elementary Content
- Common Core Middle School Content
- Common Core High School Content
- Common Core Content for Special Education
- Classroom Management
- Lesson Planning
- Assessment and Data
- Student Teaching
- Secondary Methods
- Instructional Design for Special Education
- Evidence of Effectiveness
Actually, the more I delve into the study, the more dismayed I’m becoming. The full Standards and Indicators section is almost more of a political document than a teacher quality document. The “Selection Criteria” (Standard 1) is essentially a single criterion: “academic caliber” as indicated by a 3.0 GPA or proxy measure. Think about that a minute — recall fondly your favorite teacher(s), the one(s) who Changed Your Life or made some small difference. Now, quick quiz: what was that teacher’s GPA in college? You have no idea, of course — nor should you, because reducing teacher qualifications to a 3.0 GPA is a reductionist recipe for destructive devolution.
A quick glance at the other standards is similiarly disheartening. Early Reading (Standard 2) refers to the “five essential standards” as phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension strategies — guess I didn’t realize that the whole language approach had lost the war entirely. Even more disheartening is its blithe underlying assumption that teaching is simply about proper execution — all one needs to do for struggling readers, for instance, is to offer “reading courses [that] deliver the instructional strategies necessary for teaching struggling readers and require candidates to practice such strategies” (Standard 4.1). No consideration of the possible causes of their struggles is apparently necessary — the magical strategies, properly delivered by well-practiced individuals, will be enough.
So let’s be crystal clear about what this study is saying: a teacher training program is high quality if:
- it has a syllabus that includes the right instructional strategies and requires students to practice them (4.1).
- it prepares students to deliver the Common Core faithfully (Standards 5-9)
- it identifies technology applications that “boost” instruction (Standard 11.1 — technology as vitamins?)
- it teaches students to think of classroom management (Standard 10) as behavior control — staying on track is a “positive learning environment,” while any deviation from the lesson at hand is “misbehavior” and must be stopped — which is probably why something called “low profile desists” are so important (whatever the hell they are).
As the above list depressingly shows, rankings are about sorting, uniformity, and compliance, both at the individual teacher and at the institutional level (note how GWU was rather blatantly punished for failing to cooperate).
Frankly, Linda Darling-Hammond may have been understating the situation when she noted, “Take [the report and its rankings] with a salt shaker full of salt.” An entire box may be needed in this case…
1 Lyndsey Layton, “University Programs That Train U.S. Teachers Get Mediocre Marks in First-ever Ratings,” Washington Post, 17 June 2013. The article was shared by associate editor Bonnie Bracey Sutton on 17 June 2013 in the ETCJ staff listserv.
2 National Council on Teacher Quality report, released June 2013.
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