Anger Over New Rankings

Education deans from top research universities challenge methodology embraced by U.S. News and say that the "implied coercion" to participate raises questions of journalistic ethics.
February 8, 2011

Education deans from some of the top research universities in the United States have called on U.S. News & World Report to rethink its plans for evaluating teacher education programs. In a joint letter, the deans questioned not only the methodology to be used, but also the magazine's plan to say that institutions that don't participate have "failed" to meet certain standards. Such an approach is "inconsistent with professional journalistic practices," the deans wrote, adding that they "worry that this implied coercion will cast doubt on the results of the entire evaluation."

Late Monday, the magazine and its partner in the rankings -- the National Council on Teacher Quality -- announced a change in how the ratings will handle institutions that do not participate. Instead of simply stating that the programs in question failed the standards, U.S. News and the council will use whatever information they have to produce an "estimated" ranking.

The response to the education deans notes that U.S. News has used such an approach in the past, but it has been controversial, as it involves making assumptions about colleges based on something other than actual data for certain parts of the rankings formula. Sarah Lawrence College's then-president wrote, in a 2007 op-ed, of the magazine's response to the college's decision not to collect SAT data that, "in the absence of real data, they will make up a number." Education deans who sent the letter to the magazine this year could not be reached for comment on whether they would be satisfied by U.S. News estimating their scores if they do not participate. (The magazine plans to identify institutions where it has used such estimates.)

Robert Morse, who directs the higher education rankings of U.S. News, said in an interview Monday that the magazine had no intention of backing away from the project or the methodology. He acknowledged that U.S. News never considered alternative methodologies to the one it is using (which was developed by the National Council on Teacher Quality).

"If you are asking if we solicited other raters and tried to decide which one was better, no, we did not do that," Morse said. He noted that "no methodology is perfect" and that U.S. News methodologies evolve over time. But he said that the magazine was committed to going ahead with its new teacher education rankings using the council's methodology.

And the letter sent Monday to the education deans by Kate Walsh, president of the council, said that the rankings project had every right to make judgments about institutions that do not participate. "[P]rograms are certainly free to refuse to cooperate," the letter says. "But doing so frees us to render our judgment that publicly regulated programs (even those at private institutions) that produce teachers for public schools that refuse to participate are not meeting their responsibilities to the public. In fact, the review will suffer if we allow those education schools that fear our review to avoid it, as the public would be left with the ratings of a self-selected group of schools that likely felt themselves able to meet our standards."

The letter objecting to the new rankings was signed by 37 education officials at institutions in the Association of American Universities -- the president and provost of Teachers College of Columbia University, and 35 deans or program directors. Programs represented include those at leading private universities (such as Harvard, New York and Vanderbilt Universities and the University of Rochester) and publics (such as Michigan State and Ohio State Universities, five University of California campuses, and the Universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Virginia and Wisconsin at Madison).

Controversies are of course nothing new to U.S. News rankings. But the new teacher education rankings (which will cover both bachelor's and master's programs) differ from its other rankings in that they will largely be based on the methodology of an entity other than the magazine itself: the council on teacher quality. The council describes itself as a group that "advocates for reforms in a broad range of teacher policies at the federal, state, and local levels in order to increase the number of effective teachers.... Our Board of Directors and Advisory Board is composed of Democrats, Republicans and Independents, all of whom believe that the teaching profession is way overdue for significant reform in how we recruit, prepare, retain, and compensate teachers."

The methodology developed by the council focuses on a range of measures, such as the selectivity of the admissions process, how well teachers are trained to teach certain subjects, and the quality of classroom management skills. Morse noted that the methodology has already been used twice -- for studies of teacher education programs in Texas and Illinois. In both cases, the studies attracted widespread attention in part because they found significant problems and produced headlines about how teacher education was earning a "bad grade."

In both Texas and Illinois, many teacher education programs objected to the methodology, and while some of those objecting did so after receiving low scores, others who raised criticisms in fact did well under the methodology and still found it questionable. Catalyst, a publication that covers education reform, noted that the dean of one program that did well complained about losing points because textbooks used in some courses didn't match the textbooks that the council found to be most effective.

Four deans from the University of Texas at Austin -- of the schools of education, engineering, liberal arts and natural sciences -- wrote to the council more than a year ago to object to its methodology. They noted that their education programs have been praised by President George W. Bush and President Obama, but that the cross-college collaborative approach doesn't fit neatly into the methodology used by the council. The deans called the methodology "old-fashioned" in rejecting approaches used at Texas that are not being examined by other colleges for replication.

Even with those disagreements, the study gave generally good grades to UT-Austin. But officials there remain convinced that the methodology is flawed. In a separate letter to U.S. News last week, William Powers Jr., president of the university, writes that the university will not participate in the new rankings, and charges that the new project does not recognize "the best new practices in teacher education."

The letter from the education deans details other concerns about methodology, saying that too many conclusions are drawn from examining the syllabuses of courses, rather than from evidence of what new teachers are taught or how effective these teachers are in the classroom. "[T]he methodology for conducting a NCTQ review is not transparent. A review of documents from NCTQ reveals that judgments made about education schools and critical comments made by NCTQ lack supporting evidence or information on the methodology used to arrive at the ratings," the letter says.

Further, the letter argues that there are better methods for judging teacher education programs, citing efforts by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and others.

The response sent last night by the National Council for Teacher Quality rejects many of the criticisms, saying that if those alternate standards were good, they would have resulted in broad public acceptance and pushes to improve the quality of teacher education programs. Further, the response says that it is appropriate to examine course requirements as a tool to evaluate program success -- even as better methods are developed.

"You challenge the notion that reviewing fundamental design components of teacher preparation programs can be as valuable as looking at outcomes measures," they write. "To us, it is not one or the other. Reviewing the quality of inputs and tracking the impact of teacher graduates are both essential and, in fact, complementary." While good tracking tools are "years away," the council said it would experiment soon with those systems available, and further that it welcomes suggestions from the deans on ways to improve the methodology.

Both the letter from the deans and the response are far more detailed than described here. You can read the letter from the deans here, and the response here.


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