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The Trouble with NCTQ’s Ratings of Teacher-Prep Programs

Yesterday, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released its first national ratings of teacher-preparation programs. Passing judgment on 1,200 undergraduate and graduate programs across the country—but not other routes to teacher certification, such as Teach For America—NCTQ painted a dismal picture. Only four institutions rated four out of four stars: Furman, Lipscomb, Ohio State and Vanderbilt Universities. One hundred sixty-two programs received zero stars, earning them a “Consumer Alert” designation, and an additional 301 were awarded a single star.

Photo by  Frank Vincentz

Photo by Frank Vincentz

The release of the ratings, and their damning character, came as no surprise to schools of education and their supporters. NCTQ has made its mission over the past decade to promote a particular vision of teacher education emphasizing criteria such as the academic performance of teacher candidates, instruction in the teaching of school subjects via scientifically proven methods, and rich clinical experiences. No one really knows if meeting NCTQ’s standards results in better teachers—but that hasn’t slowed down the organization a whit. If an ed school had a mix of goals and strategies different than NCTQ’s and chose not to cooperate in this institutional witch hunt, well, they must have something to hide.

To be sure, few of us relish being put under the microscope. But it’s another matter entirely to be seen via a funhouse mirror. My institution, Teachers College at Columbia University, didn’t receive a summary rating of zero to four stars in the report, but the NCTQ website does rate some features of our teacher-prep programs. I was very gratified to see that our undergraduate elementary and secondary teacher-education programs received four out of four stars for student selectivity. Those programs are really tough to get into—nobody gets admitted. And that’s not hyperbole; the programs don’t exist.

That’s one of the dangers of rating academic programs based solely on documents such as websites and course syllabi. You might miss something important—like “Does this program exist?”

Today, the editorial board of the Washington Post praised the NCTQ ratings, while blaming ed schools for why “many schools are struggling and why America lost its preeminent spot in the world for education.” Sunspots too, I suppose.That’s one of the dangers of rating academic programs based solely on documents such as websites and course syllabi. You might miss something important—like “Does this program exist?”

I look forward to the Post instructing their restaurant reviewer, Tom Sietsema, to rate restaurants based on their online menus rather than several in-person visits to taste the food.

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Aaron Pallas

Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.  He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State Uni...