A week has passed since the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released its report on teacher education programs across the country. Historians joke that current events become a focus of our thoughts after about 30 years or so, but that’s not true. We can start to see the broader issues of the NCTQ report now. Let’s start with Michael Petrilli, who best captured the cheerleading for the report:
— Michael Petrilli (@MichaelPetrilli) June 18, 2013
That sounds suspiciously like Petrilli thinks the virtue of the report is embedded in its rhetorical posture; would report machismo be the right term? The problem with acting or talking out of machismo is that it leads to misjudgments. Given that, I was not that surprised when NCTQ apparently rated two non-existent undergraduate programs at Teachers College, made a number of errors about programs in California as well as at TC (see Linda Darling-Hammond’s follow-up to NCTQ’s response), and in one case refused to receive syllabi showing how my a college’s undergraduate elementary ed major was being revised to include the Common Core as a significant topic. The response by my colleagues around the country has been everything from a focus on the factual (such as the above) to some unfortunate venom that matches Walsh’s tone bite for bite.
This was almost guaranteed by the attempted scale of the review as well as the sloppiness in some previous iterations and the bitter politics of teacher education. Yet change is possible, if not necessarily through NCTQ. Just a few days after the merged education-accreditation agency stated clearly that impact in the school is critical (i.e., what the graduates do), NCTQ engaged in a purely paper exercise. I’m an historian, so I’m fond of archival research, but historians are painfully aware of the limits of what we can find on paper. Not so NCTQ, and it showed. Aaron Pallas, Richard Allington and Jon Eckert have all observed that the report felt like a book of restaurant reviews written entirely on the basis of reading menus. That’s a fair point, and NCTQ’s defensiveness on this issue does not do it any favors.
But I don’t think the factual or methodological errors stopped anyone inclined to cheer NCTQ from doing so. As one person commenting on the Chronicle of Higher Education story on the report put it, “I think the study is flawed but the conclusion is accurate.” As long as a report has conclusions that match your preexisting views, I guess that’s good enough. Since this is too often the basis for deciding which research is salient for policy (i.e., whatever fits your views), I suppose I should not be surprised. Saddened, but not surprised.
With the discussion of the NCTQ report has come some comparisons to Abraham Flexner’s 1910 report on medical colleges, which many people believe was the cause of the movement to close proprietary medical training schools. Some ironies here:
- Flexner’s report followed rather than preceded the start of proprietary medical schools’ decline. As Paul Starr explains in The Social Transformation of American Medicine, the number of medical colleges had begun to drop before the American Medical Association (AMA) asked the Carnegie Foundation to do the dirty work of “naming names,” as Petrilli put it (Starr, p. 118). Carnegie hired Flexner, who issued a report that AMA never could. But for several reasons, Starr says, the proprietary schools were doomed even if Flexner had never issued his report.
- Flexner visited the institutions he condemned. NCTQ used an archival-document review, and in at least one interview NCTQ’s Kate Walsh scoffed at the idea that a review of program performance should ever involve visiting them.1
- Flexner’s report was in the service of limiting access to medicine as a field. The AMA focused significantly on state regulations of medical practitioners, which is why Flexner’s report was less influential than many people assume. Both proprietary medical schools and nurses were marginalized by the AMA’s successful professionalization of medicine. NCTQ and many of its supporters want the reverse: instead of limiting teacher certification to those who finish approved programs, reforms consistently push for a far looser definition of teacher preparation.
I don’t know how much real policy influence this fusillade is going to have. At least in the first week, it appears to have captured a significant chunk of one news cycle in education, only to be replaced by the U.S. House markup of a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and again by Arne Duncan’s announcement of his wavering on waiver waivers. It is certainly not likely to be used by the proximate “consumers” of teacher education programs: prospective students in those programs. (My guess is that most student decisions will continue to be driven by other factors.) Nor does it focus on any aspect of teacher education that is easily targeted by state policymakers. I don’t even know if the munificent funders of the report (including U.S. News) will be happy with the practical difficulties embedded in the project (which took a number of years) and what will inevitably be a Jerry-Bracey-sized list of errors. Was the report worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars it must have taken? Will funders spend the same amount of money for a second round that would involve the same difficulties and lack of impact?
Instead of having a clear direct influence on policy, this report is more likely to be cited to push other policy agenda items, sort of like how Ronald Reagan was happy to refer to A Nation at Risk to explain why vouchers would be a good idea.2 I have no idea which policymakers are going to say, “That report on teacher education shows how bad our own state programs are, so let’s [do something quite at odds with NCTQ’s policy preferences],” or what off-the-wall idea is going to come out of that phrasing. But it is a reasonably likely result.