Teaching Partnership Regroups To Define Mission and Survive
A $23 million contract announced by the Department of Education in fall 1997 created an unusual partnership of researchers and education organizations devoted to the improvement of teaching.
The short history of the initiative, the National Partnership for Excellence and Accountability in Teaching, has been one of confusion and change, with its leaders struggling to define its mission and defend its very existence.
Faced with dissatisfaction from within and pressure from without, the partnership--known by the acronym NPEAT--has overhauled its plans substantially in the past six months. Still, its goal remains the same: to generate new knowledge about teaching and mobilize policymakers and educators to use it.
Following are the organizations that make up the National Partnership for Excellence and Accountability in Teaching:
Last month, the partnership's executive committee took steps to bring more focus to NPEAT's research agenda, which at one time spanned 39 separate projects.
But whether the initiative can make good on its ambitious plans to bridge the gap between research and practice remains to be seen. The 30 "partner" organizations, for example, still aren't sure what their exact roles will be.
That ambiguity, among other matters, worries Kent McGuire, the Education Department's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, whose office oversees NPEAT. Mr. McGuire raised the possibility of terminating NPEAT's contract last fall if it could not focus its efforts and provide more immediate guidance to policymakers wrestling with how to prepare new teachers.
Despite progress, he said in a recent interview, that possibility remains. "The question is, is there something that can happen because of this partnership that couldn't otherwise, or is much less likely to?" Mr. McGuire said. "My enthusiasm for holding the partnership together is going to go way down if I can't figure that out pretty soon."
Paring Down Projects
NPEAT's leaders have approved cutting 17 research projects, making major changes to more than half of the remaining 22, and grouping those into three "strands" to bring more coherence to the work.
The partnership plans to spend about 60 percent of its funds on research, while the rest would be spent on a variety of "partnership activities" to help spread the word about its findings.
"We've made considerable progress with respect to rethinking this work," said Willis D. Hawley, the executive director of NPEAT, who is on leave as a professor at the University of Maryland. "It's exciting and frustrating as well."
The initiative's troubles go back to its origin in the spring of 1997, when the Education Department issued a "broad agency announcement" asking for bids to establish the partnership. The department's goal was to support the recommendations for improving teaching made the previous year by the privately organized National Commission on Teaching & America's Future. ("Teaching Focus Called the Key in Reform Push," Sept. 18, 1996.)
But in its request for proposals, the department asked for a dizzying array of activities and research--what Mr. McGuire, who joined the agency after the initiative was launched, now calls "a design problem" that would come back to haunt the endeavor.
The University of Maryland College Park, Teachers College of Columbia University, Michigan State University in East Lansing, and other colleges and universities put together a bid, rallying some of the nation's most prominent education researchers to get in on the action. The group had to scramble to meet a tight deadline, but it had no competition for the award.
In October 1997, the Education Department announced the contract, which is to total $23 million over five years. The department has the option of canceling the arrangement each year. The partnership is now in its second year; some projects have been completed.
"Everyone got a piece of the action," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, one of NPEAT's partner groups, and a former assistant secretary for research under President Bush. "The result was that there wasn't sharpness and definition. We're now doing exactly that."
The department also created a continuing challenge by establishing the NPEAT project as a contract, rather than a grant. The contract format requires much more oversight by "monitors" from the office of educational research and improvement and an unwieldy schedule of products that the partnership was supposed to develop, Mr. Hawley said.
Mr. Hawley called a contract "not a good way to do research--it's very unusual to do it that way."
And cancellation of an Education Department contract is not unheard of. The department in 1994, for example, voided its contract with the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association, and the University of Illinois for the development of national standards for English instruction.
To do its part to help NPEAT get on a more solid footing, the OERI has cut the number of monitors overseeing the partnership's work--at one time, there were more than a dozen--and is working to streamline the number of products required.
'Wait a Minute'
While NPEAT has 30 partner organizations on its letterhead, participation has been uneven. Editorial Projects in Education Inc., the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week and Teacher Magazine, is a partner and may help disseminate information about teaching and professional-development issues.
As national education groups signed on to work with the partnership, some of their leaders began asking exactly what role they would have. After all, the research agenda had already been decided, they pointed out.
"Once all these people got involved, they said, 'Well, wait just a minute; we should be involved in a meaningful way and not just a perfunctory one,' " said Don Cameron, the executive director of the National Education Association, which was in on the ground floor.
The complaints from partner groups reached a crescendo last summer. At the same time, Mr. McGuire took over at the OERI, which had been without a permanent chief for 18 months. Last fall, he sent a strong signal of dissatisfaction with NPEAT's progress.
Since that time, Mr. Hawley, other staff members, and members of NPEAT's policy board have been working to try to satisfy both the partner organizations and the Education Department.
At the meeting last month, the executive committee of the policy board asked NPEAT's staff to propose new guidelines for membership, which may change as some groups decide they don't want to be involved and others sign on.
The National School Boards Association joined the effort last fall because teacher quality is of vital interest to school boards, said Harold P. Seamon, the association's deputy executive director.
"They need information that can help them make decisions on the kinds of professional-development programs that are going to pay off in terms of increasing student achievement," Mr. Seamon said. "I don't think we've really made that connection yet, but our hope is that it can be made."
The partnership's remaining work is organized around "core questions" in three areas: teacher preparation and recruitment, professional development and induction, and standards and assessments for teachers. Each "strand" is led by a researcher and a representative of a partner organization, but exactly how each will be managed, and how they will relate to one another, is still evolving.
PEAT also is working on "short-term, high-visibility" projects to address the immediate issues confronting policymakers. The partnership has a task force that plans to identify and publicize effective strategies for recruiting teachers, increasing the supply of licensed teachers, and inducting them into the profession.
Another committee is planning to hold a national conference on professional development this spring in collaboration with the Learning First Alliance. The alliance is a Washington-based group made up of about a dozen education organizations that is focused on improving reading and mathematics.
In devising the three strands of research inquiry, NPEAT partners and investigators have made numerous changes.
The researchers studying teacher preparation are totally revamping their work. Their new "core study" will involve reconfiguring eight projects to collect common data to find out, using student-achievement scores, what kind of teacher education produces the best teachers.
The researchers will look at the preparation of the teachers who produced the best results for children and examine policies that could help turn out more good teachers, among other outcomes.
Linda Valli, an associate professor at the University of Maryland who is co-leading the teacher-preparation studies, described the research as "potentially groundbreaking."
Jon Snyder, the director of teacher education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said NPEAT's partner organizations were "key in this redefining," which he also believes will yield important results.
"The partners served as an in-between--they can talk to us as researchers and also to policymakers," he said. "They played an essential role in translating understandings across people who never talk with each other."
Both Mr. Snyder and Gary A. Griffin, the co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College, said the tight time frame for bidding on the NPEAT contract and the ambitious scope envisioned by the Education Department contributed to the unwieldiness of the partnership's initial research agenda.
"The data collection is focused enough and coherent enough across all the different projects that I am guardedly optimistic," Mr. Snyder said.
"There is a lot of good research possible now which might not have been possible before," agreed Mr. Griffin, who saw two of his four projects killed in the reorganization.
But Mr. Griffin worries that the continued press for NPEAT's work to influence education policy might be unrealistic. "There is not, to me, that direct line between the notion of 'knowledge is power' and educational decisionmaking."
The researchers looking at professional development and induction are going to try to work together more closely and use common sites for collecting data. But just how the new arrangement will be managed hasn't been decided.
Sharon Feiman-Nemser, a professor of teacher education at Michigan State University who has launched a study of promising induction programs, has been asked to work more closely with another research project under way at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College that focuses on the use of technology in teacher education and development.
But precisely what is required isn't clear, she said. "It's been confusing," she said. "It seems like people have different takes on what exactly the partners were recommending."
The third research strand examines whether teachers who earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards or receive licenses by meeting standards set by a consortium of states are more effective than those who do not.
Some partner organizations have asked that the researchers reallocate money to expand the number of teachers covered in the studies, in order to produce more persuasive results.
Assistant Secretary McGuire of the OERI said he worries that the reconfigured projects pose many management issues that aren't yet resolved.
The partnership also needs a strategy for communicating what is already known about teaching-related issues for policymakers, he added.
"There are real big stakes related to how the nation thinks about teaching and learning as it gets into a debate about the reauthorization of [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act]," Mr. McGuire said. The House opened hearings on the ESEA just last week.
Now that NPEAT has a new structure and streamlined agenda, the next step will involve figuring out how to devise a plan for best using the knowledge that is generated, Mr. Hawley said. That includes getting such knowledge into the hands of the partner organizations that can help people make the most of it.
The office of educational research and improvement is up for reauthorization this year or next, a process certain to prompt questions about effectiveness from members of Congress.
These pressures further raise the stakes for NPEAT, which represents one of the OERI's largest expenditures.
"There isn't going to be this kind of money again in our lifetimes," said David G. Imig, the chief executive officer of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and a member of NPEAT's executive committee. "To do this right, to see an impact, is absolutely critical."
Vol. 18, Issue 21, Pages 1, 14-15Published in Print: February 3, 1999, as Teaching Partnership Regroups To Define Mission and Survive