Law & Courts

Congress Approves New HEA

Higher Education Bill Boosts Teacher Ed. Link to Schools
By Stephen Sawchuk & Alyson Klein — August 12, 2008 8 min read
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A higher education bill awaiting President Bush’s signature takes steps to increase accountability for programs that prepare teachers. It also refocuses the main federal funding source for education schools on collaborations between such schools and local K-12 districts to improve clinical teacher-training experiences and offer teacher-residency programs.

The bill would reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which was last renewed in 1998 and has been due for an overhaul since 2003. The HEA governs a broad swath of federal student-aid and other college-level programs.

In addition to tweaking the law’s teacher-training elements, the bill simplifies the main federal student-aid application from seven to three pages and alters eligibility and evaluation components of the college-access programs known as TRIO.

Congress approved the bill on July 31, two days after a conference committee hammered out remaining differences between the House and Senate versions. The bill next heads to the president, who is expected to sign it.

Observers noted that the stiffer teacher-college accountability pieces constitute one of the few parts of the bill to focus on a concrete student-outcome variable, such as test scores.

“The vast majority of the [higher education accountability] debate is focused on college costs and money—the finance piece, rather than focusing on the outcomes we’re getting for that money,” said Sara Mead, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.

New Requirements

The 1998 reauthorization of the HEA required states to rank teacher-preparation programs based on the percentage of teacher-candidates in each program passing state licensing exams. Under the 2008 bill, states also would have to compare the average scaled score of each program’s candidates with a statewide average and specify whether teacher-candidates who have passed the exams have completed their coursework.

The changes would allow officials to better differentiate between institutions with high test-passing rates and obtain a more accurate sense of program quality, proponents said.

“It allows us to focus our attention on the real productivity of schools of education, and not include in the equation others who decided they wanted to take the licensing exams,” Sharon P. Robinson, the president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, in Washington, said of the new accountability language. “It is something we have advocated from the very beginning of this reauthorization process.”

The compromise bill also places a heavier emphasis on better preparation of teachers of specific subjects and populations, including students with disabilities and English-language learners. Teacher-preparation programs would have to set annual, quantifiable goals for increasing the number of teachers trained in state-designated shortage subjects and fields. They also would be required to report progress toward achieving those goals, but they wouldn’t face penalties for failing to meet them.

The president of the body that accredits about half the nation’s 1,300 schools of education praised the requirement.

“The Congress has identified areas of need that the entire nation has,” said James Cibulka of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education in Washington.

Mr. Cibulka said the language also complements NCATE’s accreditation standard requiring programs to demonstrate that they prepare teacher-candidates to educate diverse learners.

On funding of teacher training, the compromise HEA bill combines three existing grant programs into a single federal funding stream. The money would bolster partnerships between colleges of education and school districts to offer enhanced field experiences for prospective educators.

Grants could be used to develop “teacher residency” programs, which allow students pursuing master’s degrees in education to work alongside mentor teachers at high-poverty K-12 schools while taking graduate-level courses.

Teacher education programs could also use the grants to bolster field experiences for undergraduates and provide support to new teachers during their first years in the classroom, including helping them develop relationships with mentor-educators.

Ms. Robinson of AACTE praised the new incentives for collaboration between colleges of education and districts.

“What six weeks of student teaching [accomplishes] is not adequate,” Ms. Robinson said. “Engagement with schools of education in the real schools and communities that work with these candidates, that has to be intensified. It takes a lot of work, so sending that kind of signal is the right thing to do.”

The language is similar to a campaign proposal put forth by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. He has made expanding teacher residencies and bolstering support for new teachers a cornerstone of his education plan.

The revised HEA would also authorize “Teach to Reach” grants, which could be used to support partnerships between teacher colleges and high-need districts to help general education teachers work with students in special education placed in their classrooms.

And it would create an Adjunct Teacher Corps, which would allocate competitive grants to districts to help recruit and train mathematics and science teachers and specialists in foreign languages that the federal government deems “critical.” President Bush has proposed a similar program in his education budget for several years.

TRIO Changes

The bill also has provisions affecting the TRIO programs that help prepare disadvantaged students for higher education. It would permit TRIO applicants whose grant applications were rejected to appeal such decisions. And it would scrap a set of guidelines issued in 2006 by the Department of Education for Upward Bound programs.

TRIO advocates contended that those guidelines would shift the focus of the Upward Bound program from college access to dropout prevention, and take admissions decisions out of the hands of local program administrators. Under the department’s guidelines, 30 percent of a program’s participants have to be at risk for academic failure, meaning they have a 2.5 grade point average or lower. To be eligible for Upward Bound, students must have completed the 8th grade but not yet finished the 10th.

The completed bill eliminates gpa requirements for participants and would allow students to enter Upward Bound at any grade level.

The Bush administration’s guidelines “attempted to deprive students who are not failing academically from receiving services,” said Arnold L. Mitchem, the president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, a Washington-based organization that advocates for the TRIO programs.

He said the directive “overlooks the important fact that some excellent Upward Bound candidates may be surviving in school but may be at risk of failing in life.”

Observers said the passage of the HEA bill reflected an ongoing bipartisan commitment, even as the renewal of other education laws broke down over ideological differences. The Head Start preschool program was renewed in 2007, four years after its scheduled reauthorization, while the No Child Left Behind Act, due for renewal in 2007, is not expected to be reauthorized until next year at the earliest.

“Why is this legislation so broadly supported? Because we all understand the importance of a well-educated population, and the urgency of this moment,” Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said on the House floor just before the HEA vote. “It’s going to make a major contribution to strengthening the American economy.”

End of a Long Road

House and Senate conferees had already resolved most areas of disagreement—including those involving teacher colleges—informally in a series of closed-door negotiations that began early this year.

The main provision in flux late last month concerned the “maintenance of effort” provisions to encourage colleges to hold down tuition costs.

The final provision, which was offered as an amendment by Rep. John F. Tierney, D-Mass., in the conference committee, would require a state to fund higher education programs at a level that was at least as high as that state’s average appropriation for postsecondary education over a five-year period. States that failed to comply would risk losing federal Access Challenge grants, which aim to increase the number of students from underrepresented populations who graduate from college.

The ranking Republican on the House education committee, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, praised new reporting provisions to publicize skyrocketing college costs and to encourage states to contain them. Colleges with the steepest percentage increases in their tuition rates over a three-year period among the institutions in their sectors would have to submit reports to the U.S. secretary of education detailing why costs had increased and explaining how they would hold them down.

“This bill isn’t perfect, but it will make a real difference to students and families struggling to pay for college,” Rep. McKeon said.

The House approved the final HEA bill by a 380-49 vote and the Senate by an 83-8 vote.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, however, expressed the view that the bill did not go far enough on the college-accountability front.

“More work can, and must, be done to make achievement outcomes more transparent to students and families,” Ms. Spellings said in a prepared statement July 31. She has called for stronger postsecondary education accountability through the Commission on the Future of U.S. Higher Education. (“Department Seeks Input on Higher Ed. Panel’s Suggestions for Change,” Aug. 30, 2006.)

“This bill represents another important step, but we still have a long way to go,” the secretary said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 13, 2008 edition of Education Week as Congress Approves New HEA

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