TEAC: Nipping at the Heels of NCATE

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The Chronicle of Higher Education takes an interesting look at the slow but steady progress made in recent years by the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, better known as TEAC, that "other" national accreditor of teacher education programs.

Chronicle Reporter Burton Bollag does a nice job highlighting the institutional muscle behind NCATE, writing that it "has grown into a coalition of 33 groups, including teachers' unions, content specialists, and state officials...together they represent virtually the entire teaching profession." It's not surprising, then, that TEAC is still a David next to NCATE's Goliath. However, its popularity seems to be growing, particularly among prestigious schools: Princeton, NYU, and the University of Virginia have all opted for TEAC accreditation.

Depending on whom you ask, TEAC's approach to accreditation is either "more flexible" or simply "weaker" than NCATE's, in that TEAC allows institutions to set their own goals and complete a self-study "of publishable quality" to see how they've met them. In contrast, NCATE applies the same standards to all institutions, and has acquired a bit of a reputation for paperwork demands that would put any bureaucrat to shame. David Breneman, Dean of UVA's Curry School of Education, said NCATE required "lots of busywork...we had to fill up a whole room with syllabi and that kind of junk. It was all cost and no benefit."

Bollag emphasizes the philosophical disagreement underlying these two distinct approaches. NCATE's approach is predicated on the notion that teaching should be "professionalized," that is, grounded in uniform standards that all programs and teachers in a given specialty should meet. Hence the much-touted standards of the more than twenty NCATE-affiliated "specialty professional associations" such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Council of Teachers of English. However, TEAC President Frank Murray is right on target on two points regarding NCATE's standards: first, NCATE has been so influential that many states have by and large already adopted their professional specialty standards as their own--ironically rendering NCATE's seal of approval somewhat redundant; and second, that in any event those standards are so "vague as to be unhelpful."

This second point is crucial: NCATE's claims of its indispensability are predicated on the notion that there is a known body of professional and content knowledge that all teachers must master, and that it and its affiliated learned societies have articulated it with a singular degree of success. This is a major talking point for NCATE supporters: Linda Darling-Hammond is deeply worried that TEAC will "allow weak schools to be accredited without having met reasonable standards."

In practice, however, NCATE's "uniform, rigorous" standards are so broad that it's hard to discern any body of knowledge that they contain. Take a gander at this standard for elementary education programs: 'Evidence shows that: Candidates can communicate the nature of a problem, and how to design, implement, and evaluate a solution to that problem.' A teacher could meet this standard by tying her own shoe.