How time flies. It’s been scarcely a month since the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released its inaugural ratings of teacher-preparation programs across the country. Already, NCTQ is gearing up for next year’s model, envisioning an annual roll-out via its partnership with U.S. News & World Report.
The first edition was riddled with problems large and small. The small ones involved misunderstandings of institutions and their programs. My own institution—Teachers College, Columbia University—had its undergraduate programs rated for student selectivity, which was quite a trick, as Teachers College is a graduate school with no undergraduate programs. NCTQ no longer lists the undergraduate education program at Barnard College as a Teachers College program, but the organization still completely misunderstands the distinctions among Columbia University, Barnard College and Teachers College. (Pro tip: If two institutions of higher education have different presidents, boards of trustees and endowments, they’re not the same institution.)
The bigger problems are rooted in the design of NCTQ’s ratings, which relied heavily on course syllabi as a source of data about program quality, rather than more direct evidence of how those programs operate, or what their graduates know and can do. Why anyone would find this a satisfactory approach is a mystery to me. There are derogatory terms in the social sciences for brief and superficial assessments of an organization or institution, including “blitzkrieg ethnography” and “drive-by ethnography.” Both seem too generous as characterizations of what NCTQ did in the name of evaluation. Maybe “mail-order ethnography” comes closer.
Will the NCTQ/U.S. News ratings influence prospective students, and the rated institutions, in the way that U.S. News ratings of undergraduate and graduate institutions have? I think it’s unlikely, but not because of the NCTQ methodology. Rather, the ratings are likely to have limited influence because of the institutions that are top-rated.
This year, NCTQ gave four institutions its top score of four stars: Furman, Lipscomb, Ohio State and Vanderbilt Universities. Vanderbilt is a highly selective private institution that draws students mainly from the South; Ohio State is a flagship state university whose undergraduates are overwhelmingly from the state of Ohio; Furman is a modestly sized private liberal arts college in South Carolina, and more than a quarter of its students are residents of that state; and Lipscomb is a private Christian college in Nashville, Tenn., serving a distinctive niche.
All four are fine institutions, but none awards credentials that guarantee access to desirable jobs. Writing more than 40 years ago, sociologist John Meyer looked at what he called a school’s “charter”—its ability to grant exclusive access to desirable future opportunities. Meyer suggested that schools with “strong” charters had more comprehensive effects on their students, in part because outsiders were quick to attribute the link between a school and students’ futures to the qualities of the students. Because attending Harvard Law School pretty much guaranteed access to a prestigious and high-paying job as a lawyer, there was a distinctive sense of what it meant to be a Harvard Law School student.
U.S. institutions of higher education generally have weak charters, with the exception of some elite professional schools in law, business, medicine and engineering. And it’s no coincidence that the most highly rated professional schools in the U.S. News rankings are precisely those whose degrees do serve as passports to good jobs. But regional and niche undergraduate institutions are unlikely to develop strong charters; there will always be good students who choose to enroll in other institutions, and who use those other schools as platforms to launch their careers.
Lipscomb’s status as a niche institution with narrow appeal is demonstrated by its requirements for students majoring in the teaching of biology. These students, along with all other undergraduate biology majors at Lipscomb, enroll in a senior Capstone Seminar that examines evolution in religious, historical and scientific contexts. The course description on the Lipscomb website states that the course relies heavily on “books by both creationist and evolutionist apologists.”
Now, Lipscomb officials might respond, “Seriously? You’re going to lampoon our academic program based on a one-paragraph course description on our website?” Well, I don’t have the time to go down to Nashville and talk to faculty or students. If Lipscomb isn’t willing to stand behind its course descriptions, it should take them down, or put up more information.