NCTQ valiantly tries to defend its methodology by attacking MSU

Written by: Donald Heller

Primary Source: Dean’s Blog


Yesterday Education Week published online a commentary article I authored with two of my College of Education colleagues, Avner Segall and Corey Drake.  In it, we explained why we have chosen not to comply with a recent request for information about our teacher education programs from the National Council on Teacher QualityEducation Week provided Kate Walsh, the president of NCTQ, an opportunity to reply to our article.  My first intent was to allow her to reply, and have that be the end of the dialogue.  But rather than just defending her study’s methodology, her post included specific attacks on our teacher education program, to which I feel an obligation to respond.

Ms. Walsh wrote:

For the purposes of this short letter, let me pose this simple question. Is the field prepared to ask public schools which courses matter more for the new teachers they may one day hire: Human Diversity, Power, and Opportunity in Social Institutions, an actual required course at Michigan State University (the letter-writers’ institution) for undergraduate teacher-candidates, or Research-Based Classroom Management Strategies 101, the sort of course NCTQ seeks? Our guess is that you know which they’d pick, and that’s why any discussion of our standards is avoided.

She presumably is ridiculing one of our courses – and she has the title of TE 250 correct, which is a course required of all our undergraduate teacher candidates – by presenting a supposed dichotomy that dictates that if a teacher education program teaches about the topics of diversity and opportunity, that it cannot be teaching classroom management techniques.  Yes, we do teach our prospective teacher candidates about the impact inequality and diversity has on schools and schoolchildren.  We believe it is critical that our graduates understand the impact these differences have on the classrooms in which they will be teaching in just a few short years.

Here is an excerpt from the course description of TE 250 this fall:

This course introduces prospective teachers to the ways in which social inequality affects schooling and schooling affects social inequality.  TE 250 is not a celebration of difference.  Rather, this course is designed to allow students to examine how socially constructed categories (e.g., social class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and physical and mental capacity) are used to privilege some individuals and groups and marginalize others.  The course focuses mostly on one social institution, public schools in the United States; however, we will examine how other social institutions influence opportunities for success and failure in schools.

I, and our Teacher Education faculty, would argue that we would not be adequately preparing our students for a lifetime of teaching if we did not educate them about these issues.  To be successful, a teacher cannot be focused solely on what goes on in her classroom; she also must be aware of the challenges students face in the 138 hours each week they spend outside of their schools.  And that is exactly the material that TE 250 covers.

Ms. Walsh implies, in her statement, that our teaching about diversity and opportunity comes at the expense of teaching about classroom management.  This statement is indicative of a key fault with NCTQ’s methodology, which relies largely on the review of syllabi to determine the quality – and ultimately, the star rating – of teacher education programs.  She is correct that we do not have a course titled “Research-Based Classroom Management Strategies 101,” and in fact, we do not have a separate course on classroom management strategies.  What we do is embed lessons about classroom management throughout our curriculum, most prominently through students’ academic year-long internship and the classes they take associated with the internship.

Our philosophy is that classroom management is best learned alongside authentic, sustained opportunities to manage classrooms, which our interns receive because they are in schools for an entire academic year (we are the only teacher preparation institution in Michigan, and one of the few in the country, that require a full-year internship).  A review of course syllabi will not necessarily show all that our students learn about classroom management; only in-depth observations of our classes, or discussions with our faculty, administrators, and students – as occurs in accreditation reviews, for example – would adequately educate NCTQ about the content of our curriculum.

Ms. Walsh also states, “To our knowledge, no public school educator has ever reviewed our standards and found something to disagree with.”  I find this a rather bold statement, implying that all educators around the country support NCTQ’s methodology.  In fact, after publication of our commentary we heard from K-12 educators around the country, most of whom had no connection to MSU, supporting our position on NCTQ’s methodology.  As confident as Ms. Walsh is that all K-12 educators support her organization’s methodology because she has not heard any dissent, we are equally confident that there are many out there who take issue with it.

She is correct that we in teacher education need to do more to track the outcomes of our graduates, and like most other education schools, we are currently in the process of tackling this issue.  We do survey our students in the fall after completion of their internships, and in last year’s cohort, 90 percent of the survey respondents reported that they were employed and another 5 percent were continuing their education full time.  Of those who were employed, 95 percent were working as teachers.

But we know this basic employment information is not enough.  We are currently working with the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) to obtain data about our graduates who are working as public school teachers in the state.  MDE has data on teacher performance reported to it by school districts, and the agency is promising to share those data with the institution at which the teacher was trained.  We believe this will allow us to begin to track the performance of our graduates in the field, and allow us to answer important questions about them.  This effort will only be a start, however; approximately one-third of our teacher education graduates take jobs outside of Michigan, as we prepare them for national and even international labor markets.  And others are working in charter and private schools.  So we need to identify mechanisms to track these teachers as well.

Ms. Walsh’s Education Week post also reported that “130 institutions have expressed interest in submitting additional materials for the next edition of the review.”  This may sound impressive, but it represents only about 10 percent of all teacher preparation institutions in the country.  And it represents fewer than 12 percent of the 1,130 institutions that NCTQ reviewed in its report last June.  So for every one institution that has “expressed interest in submitting additional materials” to NCTQ, there are nine more who, like our college, have opted not to participate.  I would hesitate to describe this as a groundswell of support.

Finally, let me address a comment Ms. Walsh made in the opening to her piece.  She stated, “Thank you for your letter, which we do genuinely appreciate, even in its public nature, as any effort to open lines of communication is important” (emphasis added).  I want readers to understand that our Education Week commentary was not our only interaction with NCTQ.  In June 2011, our Education Policy Center held a workshop in Washington, at which Ms. Walsh was a speaker.  Shortly after I became dean two years ago, I reached out to Ms. Walsh and traveled to meet with her in her Washington office.  In addition, we invited her to our campus a year ago to present a talk about NCTQ’s work and to engage in a dialogue with our faculty, which we found to be productive and interesting.  I met with her again when she was on campus.  So our decision to “go public” with our Education Week commentary was made on the heels of a number of other interactions we have had with the organization.

At the end of the day, we will stand by what we believe are more valuable assessments of our teacher education programs than that provided by NCTQ.  These include our accreditation by the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, the feedback we receive about our candidates from our internship schools and those principals and other administrators who hire our graduates, and the decision of over 130 school districts around the country (and around the globe) that come to our campus for our teacher recruitment fair each year.  As I noted above, we are working to obtain more data on the in-service performance of our graduates, but in the meantime we are satisfied with the expert assessments of those who know our program and our graduates in a more in-depth fashion than one can glean from reviewing our course syllabi.

[Note: This response was authored by me alone, not including the co-authors of the Education Week commentary.]

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Donald Heller
Donald E. Heller is Dean of the College of Education and a professor in the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University. Prior to his appointment in January, 2012, he was Director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education and professor of education and senior scientist at The Pennsylvania State University. He also has held a faculty appointment at the University of Michigan. His teaching and research is in the areas of educational economics, public policy, and finance, with a primary focus on issues of college access and choice for low-income and minority students. He has consulted on higher education policy issues with university systems and policymaking organizations in California, Colorado, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Washington, Washington DC, and West Virginia, and has testified in front of Congressional committees, state legislatures, and in federal court cases as an expert witness. Before his academic career, he spent a decade as an information technology manager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Donald Heller

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