Recently, the dean of our College of Education sent me a copy of the 2014 NCTQ report "ranking sheets" for the secondary English Education program at Purdue University in which I teach. The good news was that we were actually ranked (265 out of 406); the bad news was that when looking at our shortcomings as noted in the report, they had little to do with good English teacher education as I understand it, and they often noted issues outside of department or college control. The dean encouraged us to appeal any flawed ratings, but the criteria were, as she said, "curious at best" and completely based on document review, documents that can be found online, which, as she also noted, "is like reviewing a restaurant by reading the menu." I wasn’t sure how I could pursue an appeal. Apparently our menu was incomplete, no matter how good our meals were, and that's what mattered. That is curious indeed.
NCTQ rated us the lowest for student teaching and classroom management; we were rated the highest for "selection criteria," or Purdue's criteria for admitting students, and secondary methods teaching. OK, so what problems were we facing in student teaching and classroom management? I know that it is certainly possible that those aspects of our program could be beefed up, so I read the report's comments with interest. Here is the NCTQ statement about student teaching in our English education program:
"While the program provides student teachers with written feedback after five or more observations, it fails to meet this standard because it does not require observations to be spaced throughout student teaching placement, does not clearly communicate to school districts the desired characteristics of cooperating teachers, and fails to assert its critical role in the selection of cooperating teachers."
Well, let's see. What could we do to improve this rating and, hence, our overall ranking? We would have to require supervisors to go on regular intervals; but that would eliminate supervisor discretion to make decisions about when a student needs to be observed, or whether or not a planned or unplanned visit is warranted. We also need to tell schools the kind of cooperating teachers we want and only allow those teachers to mentor. As it turns out, it's not so easy recently to get any teachers to mentor student teachers, particularly with Indiana's new RISE teacher evaluation system, which, in part, evaluates teachers on their students' test scores. Our college relies on relationships with principals and superintendents who connect us with strong teachers who are also willing to mentor student teachers, despite this new high stakes game. Initial experimentation with co-teaching may help, but we are still figuring out how to make that work in our program, as it will require additional mentor and student teacher training. Currently our cooperating or mentor teachers get paid $220 for a 16-week experience for their efforts. Shall we ask them to do more? (Right now the plan is that the pay will be increased by $3 per week if we move to co-teaching.)
Let’s move on to the classroom management area and see what improvements we could make there, according to the NCTQ review. The report states:
"The program's evaluation and/or observation instruments do not provide feedback on student teachers' ability to:
- establish and/or reinforce expectations for classroom behavior
- manage the physical classroom
- recognize appropriate behavior through meaningful praise or other positive reinforcement
- manage disruptive student misbehavior"
Remember that NCTQ ratings and ranking are based on document analysis, such as syllabi or other handouts or assessments available primarily online. To my knowledge, there are no classroom observations or interviews with professors, instructors, or students. So the assumption is that the above items never appeared on one of our syllabi, project assignment sheets, or assessments, which, again, were readily available online or otherwise distributed to NCTQ. Since I do not know of any way our course materials were made available to NCTQ other than through the department's syllabus repository, our NCATE report, and/or our own personal or class websites, I assume that those are the materials NCTQ reviewed.
I’m not sure how, when, or where the statements above would appear on a syllabus for an English methods course. I do address behavior and management in my class—but only in the context of other discussions or assignments. For example, when students teach their peers, plan lessons, or journal and talk about field experiences, we discuss management and behavior issues they might predict or experience. When we talk about the teaching of writing, we discuss the importance of praise and positive reinforcement. But, again, the discussion is in the context of another English language arts teaching issue or concern: in this case, student writing. I think contextualizing management and discipline within the larger milieu of the English classroom is the most effective way to prepare preservice teachers; however, such context might bury the exact words and phrases sought by NCTQ so that they can’t find them. And, their assumption is if they aren’t visible in the available documents, they must not be happening.
According to the 2014 report, the highest ranked secondary education program in the nation is Western Governor's University, an accredited online university with classes and programs available in many states, including my own. I have to wonder if their online status was helpful in a NCTQ review. If the rankings are based on document review, I suppose having all courses available online for NCTQ staff to examine might be beneficial. Everything is right there, easy to see. But what about the intangible learning that results from face-to-face interactions between professors and students or between students and their peers? What about the thinking, feeling, questioning, and responding that happens during a class discussion, presentation or in the ‘moment’ of a field observation? These outcomes are not explicitly noted in any documents that my program can supply or post online. But that doesn’t mean they don’t happen.
In this latest report, NCTQ tries to align itself with teacher educators by citing what they see as our common interests. However, as long as flawed methodology and oversimplification of teacher education persist, teacher educators will be reluctant, to say the least, to support NCTQ’s mission.