Wednesday, October 15, 2014

If Wishes Were Horses: Why NCTQ isn’t Going Anywhere

Historically a comparative footnote in the history of educational reform, teacher education programs are becoming the focus of increased media, political, and public attention. One of the major forces driving the push for teacher preparation reform is the National Council on Teacher Quality, more commonly referred to as NCTQ. According to its website, the NCTQ “advocates for reforms in a broad range of teacher policies at the federal, state and local levels in order to increase the number of effective teachers.” Publicly, the organization is perhaps best known for its rankings of primary and secondary teacher preparation programs published in conjunction with U.S. News and World Report. These rankings have generated a great deal of controversy and criticism among a wide range of educators.  For example, among other issues, Ed Fuller criticized NCTQ’s input-based approach to standards, the lack of a solid research base in which to ground the standards, the standards’ narrow focus, the research methodology, the lack of data produced through NCTQ’ s research, and the poor response rates from its target population. Jack Hassard of Georgia State University went as far as to condemn NCTQ’s ratings as “junk science.” Despite the flaws in its approaches to research and reform, such is the distress that NCTQ has wrought among teacher educators that David Hill, the Division Director of Educator Preparation for the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, repeatedly tried to assure Education Preparation stakeholders at a meeting in September, 2014 that “NCTQ will go away” and that teacher education programs are more than capable of self-reform.

Despite the wishes of Dr. Hill and more than a few professional educators, the likelihood of NCTQ’s demise is remote. If anything, the current reform environment is more conducive to enabling NCTQ and similar organizations to survive, flourish, and reduce the ability of educator preparation programs to control their destinies. In the case of NCTQ, there are three factors that contribute to its continued good health now and in the foreseeable future.

First, perceptions aside, NCTQ has been around for quite some time and has more than sufficient resources to carry out its mission given that the organization originated through the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in 2000. Ironically, Ravitch – now a critic of NCTQ – was a member of the Foundation’s Board of Directors at the time and was a severe critic of teacher preparation programs and the overall quality of teacher prep. In the years following its creation, NCTQ received a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Paige, garnered the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and possess a Board that has robust representation from the business and policy-making sectors, who no doubt provide financial and other support in addition to their counsel. As a result, NCTQ is logistically positioned for the “long haul,” able to carry out its agenda free from the financial constraints that hinder the organization’s opponents.
Second, in stark contrast to those involved in preparing teachers, NCTQ has been highly effective in communicating its message to politicians, policymakers, and the general public. NCTQ’s partnership with U.S. News and World Report to carry out and report teacher education rankings provides NCTQ with a monthly audience of over 20 million between the magazine’s print and online outlets, giving NCTQ a media platform that the organization’s critics and advocates for teacher preparation programs could not hope to match. The media platform also made the issue of teacher education more salient and easily accessible to politicians, national and state policymakers, and the general public by putting the issue of teacher preparation on the map; yet, beyond the control of those who actually work to educate future teachers. Were that not enough, the endorsements NCTQ has received from organizations and individuals including the Education Trust, Democrats for Education Reform, Rod Paige, Margaret Spellings, and various school superintendents and policymakers, generate a “secondary level” of publicity that gives NCTQ a level of credibility that belies the limitation of its mission and methods. Even with the best marketing and lobby efforts at their disposal, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to counter the media advantage that NCTQ holds over colleges of education and teacher preparation programs.

Finally, NCTQ will remain a part of the reform environment because it has succeeded in redefining the debate over quality teacher preparation and how teacher preparation providers assure that teachers have the necessary knowledge, skills, and dispositions to work in America’s schools. Increasingly, the debate is finding expression in policy initiatives targeted at raising the bar for teacher candidates and the programs that train them. For example, the newly formed Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, or CAEP, places a great emphasis in its accreditation standards on the validity and reliability of evidence presented by educator preparation programs for accreditation by its organization – an element espoused by NCTQ and missing from previous accreditation organizations such as NCATE and TEAC, from which CAEP evolved. CAEP also focuses on increased selectivity for teacher candidates as expressed through grade point averages and standardized test scores, despite the limitations involved with using these measures as primary criteria for determining teacher quality. These actions have drawn fulsome praise from NCTQ, as evidenced on its own blog. And, as more states adopt the CAEP standards, state-level policies regarding teacher preparation programs and how their quality is to be determined will reflect the new, ostensibly more rigorous, standards, thus satisfying another NCTQ objective. Whether such efforts are ultimately successful in improving teacher preparation remains to be seen. Yet, the very fact reform efforts are taking place at all – let alone in the public view – is at least partially due, rightly or wrongly, to the efforts of NCTQ and other like-minded groups.

Thus, to hope that NCTQ will, in the words of Dr. Hill, just “go away” conjures the old saying, “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” For not only will NCTQ remain on the scene, but given the current political climate regarding educator preparation reform, it and similar advocacy groups will only experience larger audiences and the political clout that comes from ever more bully pulpits. Perhaps rather than wishing NCTQ would just disappear, teacher preparation advocates would do well to learn to adopt the media and political methodologies that made NCTQ a force with which to be reckoned. Only when educator prep programs are able to best NCTQ at its own game can they entertain the notion of regaining a meaningful place at the educational reform table.

by Scott Grubbs

Scott T. Grubbs is the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (C.A.E.P.) Coordinator for the James and Dorothy Dewar College of Education and Human Services at Valdosta State University. Scott is a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Policy and Evaluation at the Florida State University and is a 2013 David L. Clarke National Graduate Student Research Seminar participant.

The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education.

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