How not to respond to criticism

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It's not surprising that teacher educators feel defensive these days. They frequently face accusations for their allegedly inferior quality programs. Non-traditional training programs assert they can produce better teachers in a few months than teacher preparation programs can in two years. Looking at the existing research will not provide evidence to the contrary. Further, surveys of teachers routinely reveal complaints of inadequate preparation. States have made a lot of progress over the last five years ramping up accountability measures, with 44 states making significant policy changes designed to make it harder to get into a teacher preparation program or get out of one. (We're not sure if these new regs will deliver however.)

Our own Teacher Prep Review certainly hasn't helped improve teacher prep's reputation. Harsh, it certainly is. A plot to destroy traditional teacher prep, it is not.

Teacher preparation's latest "critic" is the federal government with its recently released Teacher Preparation Regulations.

Though I'm not sure anyone will believe me, I do sympathize. Nobody wants to be told they're not doing a satisfactory job or that their efforts are worthless. This is especially demoralizing for teacher educators who didn't join the profession for its money or prestige, but to build a better future by helping the teachers who educate our nation's children. Also, there are some high-quality programs and professors who justifiably resent blanket criticism of their entire field.

Still, there's a right way and a wrong way to respond to criticism. For example, when The New York Times published an editorial backing the new federal regulations as a way of helping teachers and emulating first-in-the-world nations like Finland,letters to the editor attacked the paper for assuming that teacher education was "mediocre and underperforming," while criticizing the research methods in NCTQ's Teacher Prep Review.

Responses like this simply further establish the belief among many in the general public that teacher education needs to be replaced since the people who run it won't even acknowledge the problems, let alone take action to fix them.

Claiming that NCTQ's study isn't valid, for example, because most programs chose not to cooperate (as one letter writer asserted) ignores the extent of our massive data collection efforts—including originally being forced to go to court in nine states to win the right to look at course syllabi, paying out $250,000 in open records fees, and dedicating teams to reach out to professors and students for materials absent the cooperation of programs. It also challenges any outside watchdog review. Would anyone claim that Consumers' Reports ratings are invalid because the independent group does not involve the manufacturers? One cannot simply claim non-cooperation as a delegitimizing factor—essentially handing institutions a heckler's veto.

And of course, no one connected to higher education should try the argument from anecdote fallacy—but again that is the most common defense. Asserting, "That's not true at my school," is not only subjective, but it also attempts to argue from a single data point. If everyone else is wrong and the teaching field really does not need improving, than there should be no problem collecting a plethora of valid evidence in support of such a view. Yet that evidence, while often promised, has never been delivered.

In any case, we do not want our ratings to be used to bash teacher preparation programs. Instead we want our ratings to help programs improve. We want teacher preparation programs to incorporate research-proven methods so their graduates can be more effective in the classroom from their first day.

I sympathize with teacher educators who have devoted their lives to this low paying, frequently attacked profession. But in the current defensive posture, real problems remain neglected.

Teacher educators and their critics both want the same thing—a better education for tomorrow's teachers.