Details from Duncan’s Teacher-Training Reform Announcement

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 30, 2011 4 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan this morning formally announced a series of proposals to overhaul teacher education practices in the United States.

In brief, it seeks changes through three major pieces: Revisions to the teacher-college accountability requirements in the Title II of the Higher Education Act to make them outcomes-based; the creation a new grant program that would give scholarships to candidates at programs identified as being excellent; and the funding of an initiative for minority-serving teachers’ colleges.

You can read the basics of all of this in a short Education Week story. Of course, if you’re a nerd like me, what you really want are all the juicy, little-noticed details. And here they are, presented with a touch of Teacher Beat snark:

• You’ve got to hand it to the Education Department for getting headlines out of ideas that are six months old. Nearly everything in this proposal comes straight out of its FY 2012 budget request and justifications, which I wrote about way back then here and here and here.

• Ok, to be fair to the Education Department, they’ve gotten some high-profile supporters of this initiative since February. Groups like NCATE, NEA, TFA are all on board.

• What’s the likelihood that these proposals are going anywhere? It’s pretty good for the overhaul to the Title II reporting requirements for education schools, which the Department will pursue through a negotiated rulemaking process. This process involves appointing negotiators charged with drafting the rules, holding hearings, releasing a rule for comment, and then revising it based on public feedback. It can take six months or more to complete. Still, an Education Department official said it wants to begin the process of finding the panelists within the next week or two. Bottom line: Within a year or so, expect the federal government to require outcomes-based data, including “value-added” information on program candidates, in all of the states.

• The prognosis is somewhat less favorable for the other two key components. Congressional appropriators must agree to support the Hawkins Centers of Excellence (created in the Higher Education Act rewrite but never funded). The Presidential Teaching Fellows is an even longer shot: It needs both an authorization and an appropriation.

• Of all of the pieces of the program, schools of education seem to be least happy with the Presidential Teaching Fellows, which would replace the TEACH grants program that they fought hard to get in a budget-reconciliation bill back in 2007. TEACH was supposed to support only high-quality programs, but department officials say that a good number of programs deemed “low performing” under the current HEA rules offer them.

Meanwhile, Sharon Robinson, the president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, generally approved of the focus on teacher education, but she was less sanguine about the PTF program proposal. “We can perfect that with the Congress,” she told me. (See AACTE’s full statement on the propsals at its website. There’s lots of important detail to chew on, including its recommendations for making TEACH more quality-oriented.)

• Another little-noticed tweak: The current HEA and scholarship requirements apply only to education schools that receive federal student-financial aid. The department wants to extend this aid, through the PTF program, to alternative route providers. This helps explain why Wendy Kopp, the founder of TFA, had such a big presence at this morning’s announcement. Kopp, for her part, told reporters that she feels her organization and other alt-routes should be covered under the Title II reporting requirements, so that all training regimes are held to the same standard. Kopp said she thinks a level playing field will help do away with the “alternate v. traditional” route arguments in teacher preparation.

• It must be Freaky Friday in the education community, because the two national teachers’ unions have switched places on a key issue. Read on:

The National Education Association appears to be pretty supportive of the administration’s efforts, despite the focus on value-added assessment data (something it’s not a big fan of). When I pressed NEA President Dennis Van Roekel about this, he said value-added still gives him pause, and he doesn’t support its use for evaluating individual teachers. But he added that, used in the aggregate, it might be appropriate for helping to improve education schools: “I think there’s potential there,” he said.

On the other hand, the American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten—who endorsed the use of test-score data in limited instances long before the NEA—criticized the focus on value-added. “At the same time that the validity of using standardized tests as the ultimate measure of performance is being widely questioned, the U.S. Department of Education appears to be putting its foot on the accelerator by calling for yet another use for tests—and one for which they were not designed,” she said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.