Working for the National Council on Teacher Quality can’t be fun or easy. Since 2003, the organization has set itself to the task of evaluating the nation’s teacher prep programs, which can only be compared to a department-store photographer telling mothers their babies are ugly. No one is glad to hear it, even if it’s observably true. Under President Kate Walsh, NCTQ routinely faces criticism, often fierce and withering, that its ratings are flawed and its methodology suspect. The controversial nature of their work has even led some skittish funders to keep them at arm’s length, making their job harder still. OK, fine. But your baby’s still ugly.

Undeterred, bless them, NCTQ has found a new way to prod colleges to raise their game. Their latest offering, “Start Here to Become a Teacher,” is a college guidebook, aimed at high school students setting their sights on a career in the classroom, steering them toward the schools and programs that will leave them best prepared to succeed upon entering the teaching workforce. It’s an interesting and creative repackaging of the organization’s rich trove of data on over 2,400 teacher prep programs, and one that conceivably could drive demand for admissions. Well played, NCTQ. Like its annual “Teacher Prep Review,” the book grades undergraduate programs on various indicators of quality, including the rigor of their admissions process, content preparation, how well they teach candidates to manage their classrooms, and whether programs provide high quality practice opportunities including attentive feedback from program supervisors.

Reading “Start Here” through the eyes of aspiring teachers is refreshing. Those of us who grew depressed in high school thumbing past page after page of top-shelf “highly-competitive” and “most-competitive” colleges to which we would not be applying can only be cheered and invigorated by a college guide whose standout schools are the decidedly non-intimidating (mostly) state schools whose graduates comprise the lion’s share of our 3.8 million teacher corps. Just try to find another college guidebook where the top-shelf schools include Appalachian State, Colorado Christian, Louisiana Tech, Montana State, Northwest Nazarene, and Dallas Baptist University. “Some of the universities with the highest general reputations (and often the highest price tags) do not have high-quality teacher education programs,” the authors explain. “Meanwhile other institutions without the well-known brands of big-name schools have quietly focused on developing superior teacher prep programs.” Hear, hear! And bravo.

The book is admirably clear-eyed about the profession, offering a chapter on “myth-busting and job advice.” It also makes clear that there are plenty of routes into the classroom besides a traditional four-year undergraduate program, including online prep programs and alternative certification paths. A multi-page spread that lists state-by-state requirements for certification tests and whether teacher candidates must maintain a minimum GPA is eye-opening, and not in a good way. The prose style is a little chirpy, as you might expect for a book aimed at high school students, and typical of the college guidebook genre, there’s plenty of pure filler. The “candidate observations” at the end of most of the school profiles are, without exception, merely endorsements from satisfied graduates of each program and run the gamut from laudatory to effusive; they seem to have been provided by the programs themselves. There’s also evidence of a rush to print or (more likely given NCTQ’s adversarial history with the programs it evaluates) non-cooperation. The write-up for a few schools like East Carolina University and New York City’s Hunter College are mere squibs, for example, featuring only those program’s “scorecards” and data on program size and cost, where graduates end up working, etc.

Over the last year, there has been a notable amount of attention, and no small amount of badly needed alarm, over how poorly schools of education prepare their candidates to teach children to read. So it’s particularly gratifying to see grades assigned for how well schools train future elementary school teachers for this most critical and urgent role. That said, it’s befuddling that any of the one hundred-plus programs featured in the book can earn a recommendation while receiving failing marks on teaching reading. The University of Texas at Austin and the University of South Carolina, for example, both get F’s for “learning how to teach reading”; several others get D’s. A failing grade on any of the book’s “Indicators of Quality” should probably be a deal-breaker preventing any college from earning a commendation, but particularly that one.

“If you want to be a good teacher right from the start of your career, your best move is to attend a high-quality teacher preparation program like those profiled in the book,” the authors write. I second the motion. Given that at least one-third of college undergrads change majors at least once, it’s uncertain how many sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who think about teaching will actually stick with that plan. But to the degree they do, “Start Here to Become a Teacher” is a good place to start.

SOURCE: Dan Brown, Rob Rickenbrode, and Kate Walsh, “Start Here to Become a Teacher,” NCTQ (March 2019).

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a senior advisor to Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools based in Harlem, New York. He writes and speaks extensively on education and education-reform issues, with an emphasis on literacy, curriculum, teaching, and urban education. After twenty years in…

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