Education study gets low marks for poor research

Most people can remember that one high school teacher who inspired us on some deeper level than the desire to just get a higher grade. From that teacher, we discovered a deep-rooted interest in some subject, and from that a passion to learn. It’s when teachers can make that connection with students that real education occurs.

But what separates that teacher from colleagues who never connect with students?

In our national quest to improve education in America, educational experts and think tanks funded by a variety of conservative and liberal reform groups are trying to answer that question.

The latest attempt is a ranking of national teacher education programs by the National Council on Teacher Quality. For some it’s the vehicle to kick-start a public discussion on teacher education reforms, not unlike the 1910 study of American medicine that reshaped medical schools.

For others, the NCTQ study is a punitive political document disguised as a flawed scientific study that has received unwarranted media attention while not actually advancing intelligent discussion.

The heads of teacher education programs at St. Martin’s University and The Evergreen State College have criticized the study, not for ranking schools in an attempted consumer guide for aspiring future educators, but for using unsound criteria to reach its conclusions.

The NCTQ study relies exclusively on the syllabi for teacher preparation courses, reading lists and other data-driven course requirements. It compared data from 1,130 higher education institutions and concluded that only four programs in the entire nation earned its highest four-star rating.

But the data were often collected in a haphazard fashion or incomplete, if the report on Evergreen’s program is representative. The NCTQ study missed or ignored readily available information that should have resulted in higher scores for TESC.

By relying entirely on a paper review, the study avoids any empirical evidence of the success or failure of teachers graduated from each program, or their students’ test performances.

The Washington Professional Educator Standards Board says the NCTQ study “reached back at least a decade from where K-12 educator preparation reform in Washington state currently reside.”

The PESB has taken the lead role in an innovative 26-state program to implement and evaluate a “classroom-based performance assessment of teaching effectiveness linked to student achievements gains.” The states have worked together over several years to develop rigorous new standards.

Everyone wants the best teachers possible in our classrooms. Real progress in preparing teachers will more likely come from initiatives like the PESB program than a superficial ranking of education programs.

It’s beyond question, however, that teacher education programs must evolve as swiftly as new technology and the changing skill sets needed by students in the modern world.

At the end of the school day, it may not matter so much how a teacher was trained or what university they attended that will make the difference in a student’s life. It’s whether that teacher had the inherent personal qualities to inspire a thirst for learning in young people bombarded with so many enticing distractions.

And that’s a subjective quality so hard to measure by a black and white data point.