For nearly a decade, NCTQ has been trying to figure out how to evaluate teacher prep coursework for its rigor. It's an endeavor to which both of us brought no small measure of personal interest due to our own experiences in teacher prep programs.
We think the wait was worth it. Our latest report, Easy A's and What's Behind Them, is a twofer that both addresses the grading standards in teacher prep and puts forward a plausible theory for the high grades.
Our president, Kate Walsh, first hit on the novel idea of using brochures from spring graduation ceremonies as the data source for teacher candidates' grade point averages. (Grade-based Latin honors are often noted in brochures.) We brainstormed any number of ideas for how to obtain those brochures -- until we realized that they were readily available on websites and from registrar's and commencement offices. The fact that it took over 5 hours on average to wrestle into spreadsheets the data from each of over 500 brochures -- well, that's a mere technicality, not a deterrent.
The second prong of this two-pronged report is the categorization of coursework assignments (be they in teacher prep or any other major) into one of two types. One type (criterion-referenced) facilitates real learning by focusing on content and skills. The other (criterion-deficient) involves overly broad or subjective assignments that not only artificially raise grades but also seriously weaken the quality of training. The identification of these two basic assignment types grew out of Julie's years of perusing coursework for our teacher prep studies. Now she feels pretty stupid for not identifying the distinction earlier. After all, it's so evident once it's explained that we've included a do-it-yourself categorization quiz in the report.
One more note on the personal dedication our team brought to the analysis for this report: our categorization of over 6,000 teacher prep coursework assignments was done largely by Christina Perucci, a very clear-eyed NCTQ analyst. The vacuous nature of the courses Christina took for her reading specialist degree from Teachers College at Columbia University (historically the premier teacher education institution in the nation) is still a sore point for her.
Importantly, our work on improving rigor in teacher prep won't stop with this report. The report has laid a foundation for a new standard — the Rigor Standard — for the Teacher Prep Review. We have first assessed teacher prep programs on the alignment of their grades with the institution at large, but we will soon also be looking for an adequate representation of criterion-referenced assignments—the assignments which keep grades in balance and help to truly prepare teachers—in a sample of program coursework.
We hope this is work that the field welcomes, having heard from many deans over the years that they'd like to find some plausible ways to reduce the high number of "A" grades their faculties award. We've taken great pains in this report to provide resources for teacher educators on how to easily transform a criterion-deficient assignment into a criterion-referenced one.
We'll know we're having a real impact when the litany of teacher candidate tweets at #edmajor which boast about the low-level demands of teacher prep assignments (coloring assignments and making marshmallow snowmen are now coming up) begin to change to boasts about meeting its real challenges.