Voices in Education

Rating Teacher Education? A Fork in the Road
In the old days, before caller ID and no-dial lists, victims of obscene phone calls faced a difficult choice: hang up in hopes the perp would go away, or try to trace the origin and press charges (or at least stay on the line and persuade the caller to get some therapy). Police psychologists usually recommended the more passive strategy, but that was never entirely satisfying because the dilemma evoked a deeper conundrum. From operant conditioning one could hope that ignoring bad behavior would extinguish it, but from our 16th president we learned that “to sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men…”

In the battle between Skinner and Lincoln, who wins?

I was reminded of this predicament in trying to advise my university about how we should react to the impending survey of teacher education programs announced by US News and World Report in partnership with the National Council on Teacher Quality. Not that the planned rating system is obscene, in the conventional sense of that word. But it is seriously flawed and the results could be misleading to its intended audience, demoralizing to the many programs in which faculty are working toward improvement, and demeaning to efforts to strengthen the quality of research evidence about schools and schooling. Its coercive nature (in the original plan, schools not providing the requested information would be marked as “failing”) added procedural insult to methodological injury; even now that US News has changed its mind about how it will mark uncooperative schools, uncertainty lingers and makes it hard for responsible deans and administrators to simply ignore the requests for data.

What to do? We could take the “high road,” which would mean providing the information and then not giving either the project or its results any more time and attention. That is an understandable and respectable position: it would convey that we have more important things to do, that we don’t want to waste our energy in arguments about a silly survey, and that we’d rather use the time to continue working on methods to improve teacher preparation. We know our house needs some cleaning, so let’s get to it and not be distracted by publishers trying to sell sensational e-magazines.

But this reaction, which neither ignores the project nor embraces it with gusto, is both practically and ethically dubious. Maybe the survey results would be ignored, maybe US News would go back to rating lawyers and architects and hamburgers, maybe (better yet) such rating schemes would eventually lose market share altogether and fade away, maybe the general public -- already drowning in a sea of comparative data about schools and schooling -- would yawn and go on with their business, maybe… who knows. In any event, though, the Skinnerian strategy would still leave a nagging moral doubt, and we would at some point have to confront our apathy. For those of us who care about teacher education and believe in the role of research as a tool for improved policy and practice, if we collaborate, even passively, how will we feel in the morning?

On the other hand, making a public fuss about the weaknesses of the project and raising the possibility that it is motivated by a less than charitable ideological predisposition, could have the unintended effect of spurring the study’s organizers to dig in their heels even deeper. Would they respond to widespread resistance by considering proposals for how to do it right? Would they accept counseling by experts in survey design and teacher education? Or would they enjoy the extra publicity from the erupting controversy and proceed emboldened rather than chastened? The plot thickens, of course, because even our moderate and constructive rebuttals would appear defensive and be exploited to score public relations points. Sadly, that has already happened: according to the New York Times, the editor of US News said the push-back from education schools was evidence of “an industry that doesn’t want to be examined.” Statements like that stoke the worst fear that the whole venture is motivated by people and organizations whose “prior” is to view education schools as the problem rather than the solution.

And so we are, again, in a pickle. Do we rise up in disgust against the assault on standards of empirical inquiry? Do we protest against an effort built on scandal and shame rather than science? Or do we ignore the prank call and focus our energies on meaningful, defensible, and useful programs of evaluation and change?

Faced with the choice between Skinner and Lincoln, I choose…Yogi Berra. We have come to a fork in the road, and I plan to take it.

Which means I will try for a compromise. I know that’s a burdened word: it can mean erosion of ethics and standards, or it can mean respect for differences as we move forward. With hope for the latter, I have registered (along with many other deans and university leaders around the country) my dismay at the fundamentally flawed designs of NCTQ and US News, indicated that I am holding off on advising my institution about whether or when to participate, offered a number of suggestions for how to repair the damaged methodology, and have even volunteered to provide ongoing advice. As a congenital optimist I continue to hope that NCTQ and US News will react smartly and ethically to the outcry they have heard. (From my private conversations with their senior staff I have sensed a high degree of professionalism and a willingness to rethink the project; in public statements, though, the top brass maintain a tough and somewhat hostile stance, and key questions remain unanswered.)

Meanwhile I am joining with colleagues at a number of universities in reaffirming the need for improvement in teacher education, and together we have begun to plan strategies to advance the cause of legitimate evaluation and reform. Let us hope that resources will become available to support the hard work that awaits us, and that we will not be distracted by the nonsense of splashy magazine cover stories.

About the Author: Michael Feuer is dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University and former executive director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education at the National Research Council of the National Academies. He is the author of Moderating the Debate: Rationality and the Promise of American Education (Harvard Education Press, 2006).