The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

All That Glitters in The New York Times is Not Gold

on October 23, 2016

A little over a week ago I read an editorial in the New York Times entitled “Help Teachers Before they Get to Class” that really offended me; not only because I thought it was inaccurate, but also because it relied so much on questionable sources. As usual, I will describe the article and then give my opinions.

The editorial begins by declaring that “The countries that have eclipsed the United States in educational achievement have far more effective systems for training teachers.” Then, it goes on to claim that “Teachers colleges in the United States have resisted proposals for raising entry standards” and that teacher training here is “abysmal.”

In addition, using a single study done by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), the editorial blames teachers colleges for “training people in subject areas where no new teachers are needed, while ignoring areas where there is a teacher shortage, like math, science and special education” and for not placing student teachers in schools in high-poverty areas.

Next, the editorial identifies and praises what the Department of Education (DOE) has recently done to determine the quality of teacher education programs in each state, make that information available to the public, and force states to provide resources that will help low performing programs improve. This federal body has produced a set of rules that includes gathering information about the performance of new teachers and their students, and connecting it to the programs where teachers were trained. Based on that information, each training program will be rated as “effective,” “at-risk”, or “low-performing”, and those ratings will be reported to the public and the DOE. Finally, states will be required to “provide technical assistance to any program rated as “low performing.”

In the view expressed by the editorial: “The new rules represent a necessary first step in broader reforms of teacher preparation. Eventually, for example, schools of education will have to become more rigorous and selective if the country is to get the caliber of teaching that it clearly needs.”

In my own view there are several holes in this editorial’s arguments about teacher education programs, and even more booby traps in the ODE’s plan for filling those holes. First of all there are many reasonable explanations for why America’s international test scores are not as high as we would like them to be. Mainly, those explanations have to do with the size of a country, the economic levels of the students who attend school and take the test, and the wealth and health of the couuntry’s citizenry as a whole. As all of us who read about education well know, Finland is usually at the top of the heap because it has advantages in all those areas.

A bigger problem with the editorial is its failure to report the credentials of the NCTQ and the weaknesses of it survey. It is a private adequacy group founded by Thomas E. Fordham Institute. In 2013 this group sent our forms to 1,130 000 teacher preparation programs in which they were to provide information about their textbooks, syllabi, graduate surveys, and admissions requirements. Only 114 replied fully to the request, and 700 others declined the request altogether. After examining the returned forms the NCTQ rated only 10 percent of the programs that responded as adequate, based on its own criteria. Representatives of NCTQ never visited any of those programs to verify the completeness or accuracy reported in the forms.

Worst of all are the rules created by the DOE because they put a large burden upon states and individual schools to obtain several types of information about novice teachers and where they received their training, and to report it without any assistance in terms of personnel or funding. In my mind these rules not only create a lot of extra work for school principals, but also a muddle for a state in matching poor performers to programs, at least some of which exist in other states.

After reading this editorial, a description of the NCTQ study, and the DOE rules I felt that if the federal government really cared about the quality of American schools, it  should have undertaken the tasks of examining the high scoring programs  in other countries and the teacher preparation programs in this country itself. Although those two tasks would be monumental in size and complexity, their results would have been tremendously important. Handing them off to an organization of dubious credentials and state departments of education was a serious neglect of responsibility.

Over all, I feel that in publishing this editorial the New York Times fell to a new low of accuracy and fairness.

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