Proceed with Caution: New Report Falls Short in Complex Task of Evaluating Teacher Education

A report by the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ), released today, raises questions and offers judgments about selected teacher education programs in the US.  Although perhaps intended as a tool to guide program improvement and, ultimately, the quality of teaching in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools, the report is deeply flawed and its findings need to be viewed with caution.

A few examples of the report’s errors are enough to cause concern.  First, the results are based on reviews of course requirements and course syllabi, which are not necessarily an accurate reflection of what is taught in teacher preparation programs; available literature on differences between intended and enacted curricula seems to have escaped NCTQ’s attention.  Furthermore, NCTQ does not link these proxy variables to observations of actual performance by teachers in elementary and secondary schools.   The NCTQ report relies heavily on intuition about these issues, but our children’s education deserves better:  we would not want to rate medical education based on a review of published course requirements in medical schools and without examining the actual content that was delivered in university classrooms and without including evidence of practice in clinical settings.

Second, only about 10% of the programs that were rated actually provided NCTQ with the requested data, and there is no explanation of how institutions that did not provide data were treated.  At GW, for example, we chose to not participate in the project, largely because we were uncertain about whether the methodology was attuned to the subtle differences between teacher preparation at the undergraduate and graduate levels.  One question, then, is what data did NCTQ use to rate our programs and how did they obtain those data?   On the other hand, NCTQ didn’t acknowledge the existence of one of our biggest programs, in Special Education.  Until these mysteries of commission and omission are solved, it is difficult for us to decide whether and how the report’s findings might contribute to our program improvement efforts.

Third, there are many errors of fact and interpretation.  For example, on the “selectivity” standard, NCTQ gives GW’s programs two stars (out of four), stating that “the program … does not require a grade point average of 3.0 or higher overall or in the last two years of undergraduate coursework that provides assurance that candidates have the requisite academic talent.”  There is little evidence that a 3.0 GPA is a proxy for such talent and sufficient to predict performance either in graduate school or, more importantly, in the workplace after graduation.  Still, at GW, 22 of the 24 students in our incoming 2013 cohort in secondary education (English, mathematics, physics, social studies, English Language Learners) had an average of 3.4.  For students who do not meet the 3.0, we offer provisional status but then require them to earn a 3.0 or better during the first nine credit hours of course work.  NCTQ obviously did not have this data, and apparently either did not read our bulletin or chose to ignore these subtleties.  As Linda Darling-Hammond has noted, Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia got low marks on this standard too, because they don’t require either a minimum GPA or a minimum GRE. Reports of other errors are starting to come in.  Teachers College (Columbia), for example, was rated poorly for two programs they don’t offer.

At GW we have much to be proud of in our teacher preparation programs: our alumni have been named “teacher of the year” in a number of school systems and have received many other awards and honors, our faculty are widely recognized for their dedication and skill, and our accreditors routinely praise us for the quality of our instructional programs based on assessments that include considerable attention to actual performance.

Evaluation of teacher education is at least as complex as the evaluation of teaching, and is worthy of the best and most rigorous methods.  Reports like this one ultimately trivialize the task and undermine efforts to ensure that our future teachers acquire the skills and knowledge needed for their lives in classrooms.  There is surely room for improvement in the world of teacher preparation – as there is in all professions – but the NCTQ report provides an inadequate basis upon which to design and implement positive reforms.

MJF
June 18, 2013

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EdWeek Commentary Condemns Misdirected Blame in Atlanta Cheating Scandal; Garners Mixed Reaction from Readers

Reactions to my recent Education Week commentary on the Atlanta cheating scandal have been interesting (see also this Washington Post blog post by Valerie Strauss that highlights my commentary). They mostly relate to the question I raised, whether the system is to blame or whether individuals, even when faced with strong pressure and incentives for opportunistic behavior, should act morally and legally.  And, of course, several of the commentaries rehearse the somewhat well known criticisms of testing.

As best I can tell though, readers didn’t take up the issue I mentioned regarding the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, which apparently improved during Beverly Hall’s tenure in Atlanta.  If student performance was really getting better, then there was arguably less reason to engage in the alleged tampering.  We won’t know whether the people accused of the cheating considered any of this, or indeed if most of them knew about the NAEP results in the first place.  Meanwhile, suspicions have been raised about whether there had also been mischief in the NAEP sampling and scoring. For an especially lucid analysis of the NAEP results and how they relate to the Atlanta situation, I refer you to this excellent article by our friend Marshall (Mike) Smith, former Under Secretary of Education and Dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

MJF
April 15, 2013

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STEM Education and the Condition of American Science

I have written elsewhere about my doubts concerning the validity of arguments that link US economic performance to achievement test results (see William H. Angoff Lecture Series Report; The Huffington Post; GSEHD Working Paper 2.3).  And in my last posting I had the pleasure of welcoming guest blogger Sharon Lynch, whose innovative work on STEM education is spurring considerable discussion and addressing some of the most important education policy issues we face.

Recently I had the honor and pleasure of serving as guest editor for the current issue of The Bridge, the flagship quarterly of the National Academy of Engineering.  In my introductory note I suggest that there are two compelling and compatible narratives about the importance of attention to STEM (and I’m grateful to my friend and former colleague, Naomi Chudowsky, for helping me understand and articulate these ideas).  The “national need” narrative is based on the hypothesis that the future of American economic competitiveness, especially in a changing global environment, hinges on an increased supply of well-educated scientists and engineers, qualified and ready to work in demanding jobs that require higher order science and math skills.  The second narrative, what might be called the “equity narrative” emphasizes the glaring and persistent inequities in the distribution of educational opportunities and the deficits experienced by underrepresented minorities and women in the STEM fields.

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STEM Education: The Pursuit of Excellence and Diversity

Featuring Faculty Guest Blogger Dr. Sharon J. Lynch

Participants in our 10th annual Educational Symposium for Research Innovations (ESRI), or at least those who were lucky enough to wake up early on Saturday morning for the keynote address, had the extra bonus of hearing Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy’s superb talk about the National Science Foundation’s commitment to improved STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education at all levels.   The timing of ESRI and of Ferrini-Mundy’s visit was exquisite, coming just a few weeks after President Obama reaffirmed that the state of our union hinges on continued investments in education to meet changing job and skill needs of the coming century. (By the way, major kudos to Professor Rick Jakeman, the faculty supervisor for ESRI, and to Chris Harriss, Student Chair, for pulling off yet another outstanding conference!)

Today I am happy to welcome my first faculty “guest blogger” to this site, Professor Sharon J. Lynch, who is involved in critically important research on STEM education.   Here Professor Lynch reviews preliminary findings from her NSF-funded project.  I urge you to read on for her thoughtful summary, which is not only substantively rich but also is a model for the ways in which GSEHD strives to connect rigorous research to improved policy and practice.

MJF
February 25, 2013

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Pulling Rank

U.S. News and World Report has decided to reclassify GW as “unranked” in light of the University’s disclosure of an error in the way one statistic, percentage of incoming freshmen who graduated in the top 10% of their high school class, had been reported.  This unfortunate move on the part of USNWR is explained by its director of data research here.

I’d like to offer a few thoughts about this story to our students and their families, and to our faculty, staff, national council members, current and future employers of our graduates, alumni, and other friends in the community.

First, we can all be proud of the way President Knapp, Provost Lerman, and Vice Provost Maltzman handled the discovery that data had been reported incorrectly: they came right out and said so, voluntarily, quickly, and with complete transparency.  We should applaud this decision, which included a full independent audit and restructuring of internal oversight procedures, because it makes clear that for GW ethics precedes expediency.  As President Knapp notes in his public statement to the community, “we [disclosed the mistake] without regard to any possible action that U.S. News might take as a result…”

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Some Random Thoughts Post November 6

Regardless of your ideological or political preferences, this year’s election results were a powerful reminder of what’s special and perhaps unique about the American system.  Just over the bridge from here, “swing-state” Virginians swung toward President Obama and elected Democrat Tim Kaine to be their Senator, while in the Richmond area they overwhelmingly voted for Republican (majority leader) Eric Cantor.  Up the road, our friends in Maryland approved gay marriage, rights for immigrant children – and casino gambling.  Californians, seemingly fed up with years of education cuts, supported Governor Brown’s plan to raise taxes to support needed reinvestment in what was once among the best university systems in the world; and they rejected the proposal to abolish capital punishment.  In Florida, where we still are waiting to see where the state’s swing will land when the final votes are counted, an initiative to overturn the prohibition on public funding of religious organizations failed; as did a proposed amendment that would have banned use of state funds for abortion.  (Maybe I’m out of touch, but I don’t think I would have predicted these outcomes from Floridians!) Voters in DC expressed their concerns for good government by approving draconian measures authorizing the Council to expel members for “gross misconduct,” requiring the mayor or a council member to resign immediately if convicted of a felony, and prohibiting elected officials convicted of felonies from ever holding office again.

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Some Thoughts about the Chicago Teachers’ Strike

There are enough smart people expressing their strong views about the causes and effects of the Chicago strike that I hesitate to clutter the blogosphere with additional commentary.  But I do want to share a few thoughts:

1) My sense is that the strike was symptomatic of a deep problem in American education, which I would summarize as the demise of trust brought on by the accountability movement that may have run amok.  For a slightly longer discussion, see my Education Week commentary, due out in next week’s edition and available online probably by Monday or Tuesday.  It was written before the strike began, and will appear after the strike was settled; nevertheless, I think the issues I discuss there are relevant – not just to Chicago but to the ongoing debate about evaluation and accountability.

2) With somewhat uncanny coincidence, just as the strike was ending, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching was convening a group of education policy cognoscenti for a two-day conversation about teacher evaluation.  In Tony Bryk’s opening to the conference he presented some fascinating data, drawn from the work of Richard Ingersoll and colleagues at Penn and included in recent reports of National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF).  It seems that the modal number of years teachers remain in their jobs dropped from 15 in 1987-88 to 1 in 2007-08.  That’s the national statistic; here in D.C., for example, that translates to meaning that roughly 10 percent of teachers leave teaching after one year on the job and that fewer than 5 percent have more than five or six years of experience.  For more on this issue, see the NCTAF report, “Who Will Teach? Experience Matters.”

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