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Study puts SUNY Potsdam education department under fire

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POTSDAM — A new report from a national nonprofit research organization has slammed SUNY Potsdam’s teacher education programs, but college officials were quick to defend the school’s integrity.

The National Council on Teacher Quality looked at nearly 1,200 programs at more than 600 colleges in a study compiled over two years and released last week.

SUNY Potsdam’s undergraduate programs for elementary and secondary education both received one star out of four, as did the graduate secondary teacher prep program. The graduate elementary teacher prep program received no stars, only a warning sign of low quality.

Few schools studied by the council emerged unscathed. Only 105 programs scored three or more stars, and only four got perfect marks.

“We just don’t see that the system that is currently in place today is rigorous enough. We think we can do better,” council spokeswoman Katie Moyer said.

SUNY Potsdam officials defended their programs, accusing the council of performing an agenda-driven, methodologically shoddy study.

“We were prepared to be disappointed. We’ve known about this for quite some time,” said Peter S. Brouwer, dean of education and professional studies.

The study was based primarily on course syllabi, demographic information and program requirements. This is not enough to get an accurate picture of the program’s effectiveness, Mr. Brouwer said.

“They only look at inputs. They don’t look at outputs,” he said.

SUNY Potsdam interim President Dennis L. Hefner phrased things more strongly, accusing the council of performing “hatchet jobs” on institutions that don’t fall within its narrowly defined standards of quality.

“They never met a fact that interfered with their predetermined conclusions,” he said.

Mr. Brouwer used the study’s view of college selectivity as an example of inaccuracy. All four of SUNY Potsdam’s programs received zero stars for admissions requirements. According to the study, the college is allowing subpar students to enroll.

However, Mr. Brouwer said, this view is misleading. It looked only at the enrollment requirements for the college as a whole, ignoring the higher standards set by the education department. Students applying to the college do not immediately declare a major, and the department accepts only students with a B average or better.

SUNY Potsdam’s teacher education programs are nationally recognized by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, and more than 90 percent of students pass the state’s teacher education exams in most categories.

“I think the standards that we are being held to are extremely rigorous,” Mr. Brouwer said. “These students who go through our systems are very motivated and very prepared.”

These qualifications are not rigorous enough to do an accurate job of measuring course effectiveness, according to the council.

“We’re trying to provide a more nuanced look to consumers,” Ms. Moyer said. “We are looking to determine where there are gaps or strengths in the design of the program.”

Each program was ranked in numerous categories, but the council would not reveal how these categories were ranked to produce a final rating. The organization’s methodology has come under fire from the SUNY system.

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher released eight talking points listing flaws in the study, including a lack of transparency and a lack of research backing up the methodology.

NCTQ’s rating standards are based on a series of 10 studies conducted over eight years.

At SUNY Potsdam, the education department has paid little attention to the study after the initial furor following its release. Mr. Brouwer said he is confident that it will prove to be just a “blip,” unlikely to shake things up at the college.

“The faculty here know how hard they’re working,” he said.

The study, along with more information about methodology, is available at www.nctq.org.

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