In the accountability era, data have become a weapon; opposing groups lob data back and forth to discredit each other and create support for pre-determined opinion and philosophy. Truth be told – especially if you don’t have much concern about research methodology (maybe only that it is scientifically based, whatever relative definition of that term is conveniently picked) – there is data out there for you. Especially in the murky waters of what works in education, data can be found, generated, or – when necessary scientifically fabricated – to prop up almost anyone’s point of view.
These days, what gets accepted as fact is almost never a matter of how rigorous the research process is or how valid the data are. As long as you use the word data in some form or fashion, you can create generally accepted fact. You just need to get your message out in the media in a way that can be picked up by the general public, preferably in a big box movie or on a friendly, graphic website. Just a couple weeks ago, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), in partnership with U.S. News & World Report, published a damning report of traditional teacher education in the U.S. The methods used to gather data bordered on the ridiculous and the organization’s bias against traditional teacher education is obvious in everything from the language of the report to the make-up of its board. Nevertheless, the NCTQ Teacher Prep Report made headlines and people listened to the message. The report was released on Tuesday, June 11th. As soon as I opened msn.com Tuesday morning I saw reference to the NCTQ results; I heard related reporting on NPR on my way in every morning from Tuesday on; Indeed, in my first meeting Tuesday morning one of my colleagues mentioned an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which headlined “’An Industry of Mediocrity’: Study Criticizes Teacher-Education Programs.” Snappy phrases like “an industry of mediocrity” are just too juicy for even a respected media outlet not to recycle and proliferate.
As Chair of Teacher Education at Newberry College, I do have a dog in this fight, but philosophically, when it comes to teacher preparation, I fall on both sides of the fence. I have prepared teachers through traditional means but also through alternative means. I am not opposed to Teach for America (though I’d like to find more than a handful of TFA candidates who have spent more than the required two years in the classroom before moving on to bigger and better things). It’s astounding to me that no one seems to acknowledge the fact that venture philanthropies and for-profit education businesses have much to gain from the dissolution of traditional avenues and governmental gateways in teacher preparation and licensure, as well as school funding and governance. Who are we kidding?
But this is not a post about teacher education. What interests me is how a vague reference to data takes opinion and makes it into gospel, gospel that cannot be denied. Any teacher education program sounding off against the NCTQ report – especially those labeled with NCTQ’s handy “consumer alert” – sound defensive and thus culpable. To attack NCTQ or NCTQ’s data-gathering methods publicly just implies one is a special interest group out to cover its butt with semantics and excuses. Institutions are caught between a rock and a hard place. Respond and reinforce the implication that you are culpable; don’t respond and let what is, at worst, thinly veiled slander become accepted fact. Public school districts, principals, and teachers in South Carolina and across the nation face this same conundrum. We know that many of the data systems used to evaluate effectiveness are flawed, in great part because high-stakes, large-scale testing used to determine effectiveness are not reliable indicators of student learning at the individual or classroom levels.
As a teacher, there were years that I had all the highest scoring students in the school on the state standardized reading test and there were years that my students barely made it past the test to eighth grade. Every year the students changed, the test changed, the scoring methods changed, the way growth was calculated changed – I was the constant in the classroom. What I did played only one part in determining my students’ and school’s standardized test results. But like my school, I would have seemed defensive had I questioned or refused to acknowledge what I know is a flawed system of evaluation.
Our best bet as educators – when it comes to standardized testing – is to make the best of a bad situation and try to help it improve. You, the American public, like a number that can be sliced, diced, and statistically compared with a slew of other numbers? Then sure – let’s try to evaluate my instructional effectiveness as a classroom teacher using standardized tests. As a data literate instructor I have a pretty good (but not guaranteed) chance of making the game work in my students’ favor while actually teaching them to high levels in real time But, while I accept a certain amount of the gospel for what others believe it to be, I will advocate for better evaluation and real learning. I will pay an appropriate amount of attention to data from those tests – which is not as much as many people think – whether the results are positive or negative. I will share more reliable assessments, useful data, and valid inferences with all the stakeholders in my classroom – students, parents, administrators, and colleagues – all while educating, inspiring, drawing attention to, and involving them in what everyone really wants: a truly fabulous, effective learning environment.
Public education and teacher education institutions need to do the same. When it comes to reports and report cards – damning or otherwise – we must respond, but an all-out battle will not make us look any better. Ignoring the gospel won’t either. On an institutional level, we must advocate for better evaluation and real learning, and we must pay an appropriate amount of attention to reports and report cards like NCTQ’s – which is not as much as the report writers think – whether our results are positive or negative. We must develop and share more reliable assessments, useful data, and valid inferences with all our stakeholders – all while educating, inspiring, drawing attention to, and involving them in what everyone really wants: an institution that cares about people and is effective at achieving important outcomes related to their long-term success.