SESP dean: ‘Dishonest’ ratings used in U.S. News

On Feb. 4, Penelope Peterson, the dean of the School of Education and Social Policy, signed a letter from 14 education schools across the country objecting to the National Council on Teacher Quality’s new rating system for U.S. News &World Report.

For years, U.S. News had been giving descriptive data about education schools, and NCTQ recently rated schools within Texas and Illinois, Peterson said. But when the magazine teamed up with NCTQ to create a national evaluation, deans called their methodology into question.

There is nothing wrong with rating schools, Peterson said, as long as the rankings are transparent and accurate.

“I would call it a Consumer Reports approach to rating teacher education,” Peterson said of the NCTQ ratings, which she said evaluate schools based on their syllabi and admission standards. “I don’t think in any way you could call this a sophisticated research study.”

Although Peterson disagreed with some of the standards and methods, she said she supports NCTQ’s motivation.

“Their argument is the public and superintendents have the right to know something about these teacher education programs. I think that’s true,” Peterson said.

SESP freshman Melissa Scholl, who said she decided to go to SESP after high school teachers and SESP alumni recommended it, said prospective students also have to right to see how schools they may attend are ranked.

“It’s important for kids to have the best information when deciding on colleges,” Scholl said. “The more knowledge you have, the better decision you make.”

NU ranked highest out of 111 programs during the Illinois evaluation and was the only school to receive an A, Peterson said. The rating was given after granting NCTQ more access.

“Basically, we would have failed for the standards if we hadn’t presented additional data and argued with them,” Peterson said. “If they just used the public data – for example, whatever they could find on our website – it would have been very inaccurate and misleading.”

According to the letter, which was addressed to U.S. News Editor Brian Kelly, the deans believed this evaluation process needed to be more transparent. If a school failed to provide sufficient data for any of the 17 criteria, it would automatically fail that standard. And as Peterson explained, standards of education vary by state, meaning that every institution does not have access to the same data required by the report.

“The standards they’ve created nationally are standards they think everybody needs to meet,” Peterson said. “But education is under local control.”

In the state evaluations, NCTQ rated schools based on their “value-added,” or effectiveness of education students in the classroom after they graduate, Peterson said. While states like Florida track these statistics, Illinois does not.

“I don’t know where all my students are that have graduated from our school, and, furthermore, I don’t have access to their student achievement scores,” Peterson said. “So we got a zero on it.”

The deans wrote in their letter that this flunking is unfair to schools unable to provide data.

“Equating missing data with instrumental failure is simply dishonest,” the deans wrote. “And doing so would surely result in a devaluing of the overall rating.”

Kelly acknowledged this point during an interview with The New York Times and said NCTQ will stop failing schools that don’t have statistics for certain standards. NCTQ also promised to publish its grading rubric online.

SESP freshman Jamie Gebhardt transferred from Weinberg at the beginning of the year. She said she didn’t look up SESP’s ratings during the transfer process and was not aware education schools were ranked. However, she said NU’s ranking as a whole was a factor in her college decision.

“All of the schools I wanted to go to were highly ranked schools, and that wasn’t a coincidence,” Gebhardt said.

Despite the controversy, NU and four other schools that signed the letter to Kelly have decided to participate in the NCTQ evaluation.

“They’re going to do the study anyway,” Peterson said. “When we engaged them in conversation and presented them with additional evidence with the review in Illinois, it worked. They listened, and I believe they will listen.”

Some schools still question the NCTQ ratings. The Association of American Universities sent a separate letter to Kelly that Peterson did not sign.

Peterson said the continued opposition to the rankings is a “diversion” from education schools’ true goal: reforming teacher education, particularly in urban areas with poor conditions. She said she hopes the discussion between NCTQ and deans brings education issues into public thought.

“You start ranking something, people start paying attention to it,” Peterson said. “I think it could make everybody focus on the fact that teacher education is important.”

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