NCATE begins its reinvention

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Nearly 700 of the nation's education schools (well over half of the total number) are accredited by NCATE. For all this penetration, there's little evidence that the accrediting body has been very picky about which schools earn its seal of approval. In fact there's lots of evidence suggesting otherwise, with many of the better schools eschewing accreditation.

NCATE's new leader, Jim Cibulka, brought in as a much needed change agent last year by the NCATE board, is determined to alter this calculus. With great fanfare, NCATE unveiled on June 23 a fork in the road to accreditation: either institutions must be on track to be rated "excellent" under the current standards or they must select from a menu of "transformative" initiatives. The common theme of these initiatives is that they are designed to forge a stronger bond between ed schools and the PK-12 schools for whom they prepare teachers.

There's a worrisome "let a thousand flowers bloom" theme to the new design, perhaps a sign that the powers that be are still unwilling to clamp down on the free-for-all that characterizes teacher training in the United States. The big announcement featured several examples of how the new initiatives might get played out, ranging from a year-long teacher-training residency housed in the local schools to a support center run by an ed school to service high-needs schools. Both fine ideas, but will the very act of taking on such activities be enough to win accreditation, or will someone be willing to say, "nice effort, but you're doing it all wrong?"

These sorts of initiatives are motivated by the same thinking as the several decades old "professional development school," a partnership between a P-12 school and an ed school in which the education school theoretically benefits from the use of a P-12 school as a site for training teachers and conducting research, while the P-12 school staff theoretically benefits from learning about new practices, more discussion of its instruction and so on.

Even the teacher education field's own assessment of the success of the professional development model is equivocal. Most of the research isn't really research, having been done by the teacher educators who themselves work in these schools, and the studies focus much more on "perceptual outcomes" than on the effectiveness of the teachers produced.

What may be even more relevant here is the poor track record teacher educators have in persuading school districts to give the idea a try. With all the pressure that schools face, there's little incentive to turn any control over to the local ed school, especially when it most likely lacks a track record of modeling good education practices itself or even engendering them elsewhere. School districts approached by ed schools being prodded by NCATE to seek a partner for a transformative initiative would be right to say "first get your own house in order."