Federal

Groups Form Task Force to Sway Teacher-Prep Rules

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 21, 2012 4 min read
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Concerns over teacher-preparation regulations that the U.S. Department of Education is crafting have spurred several higher education lobbies to join forces—a sign that the issue is rising on the agenda of college officials.

Individuals from the groups formerly met on an informal, ad hoc basis, but they recently created a “higher education task force on teacher preparation.” It has crafted two documents—one detailing concerns with the federal rules, and another outlining its own principles for evaluating teacher-training programs.

The task force includes representatives from the influential American Council on Education and several other associations representing public, private, and religious colleges.

“The department is using a very unconventional methodology to make some pretty dramatic and precedent-setting policies, and that’s of great concern to us and to our campuses,” said Becky Timmons, the assistant vice president for government relations at the Washington-based ACE.

“I wouldn’t say that teacher prep is a daily topic that [college] presidents focus on, but they are, trust me on this, very focused on the changes the department is proposing,” she said.

The proposed regulations, expected to be released this month, would govern the provisions on teacher preparation and accountability in Title II of the Higher Education Act.

Another ‘No Child’?

Drafts released by the Education Department during negotiations this year indicate that the agency plans to require states to categorize their programs on a four-tiered quality scale, permitting only high-scoring programs to offer student financial aid through the federal TEACH grant program.

The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, or TEACH grant, provides scholarships for teacher-candidates who agree to work in low-income schools for four years. The link between that program and a quality designation is chief among the groups’ concerns.

“From a workability point of view, it’s difficult and probably not fair to the student, because they could lose their TEACH grant mid-program” if the program’s quality designation changes, said Makese S. Motley, the assistant director of federal relations and policy analysis for the Washington-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which represents regional state institutions. “We think it could set a dangerous precedent with respect to all of the other student-aid programs.” Much concern has also been voiced about the proposed measures of program quality.

The Education Department signaled that it is likely to require states to use student test-score growth, in combination with other gauges, such as teacher-retention rates, to determine how graduates from different institutions tend to fare in K-12 classrooms. Scholars continue to debate whether that methodology can be accurately and reliably applied to teacher education.

But the task force, in stating its concerns, said that such measures would apply the “tenets” of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires schools and districts to show annual improvements in standardized-test scores.

So far, only Louisiana has tied such “value added” estimates to preparation-program reviews, though more than a dozen states plan to use them in some form in coming years.

Long Outlook

Many of the groups’ complaints, including the contention that the Education Department has exceeded its regulatory authority, emerged during the federal negotiations process. That effort fell apart earlier this year after panelists could not reach an agreement on a draft rule.

What effect the task force will have on the shape of the proposed regulations remains to be seen.

“There is still strong support in the administration to do this,” an Obama administration official said about the regulations, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The ball has been moving for a while.”

With that in mind, lobbyists for the groups said they have made progress on Capitol Hill, especially among House members.

“I’ve heard that some Hill staff have been sort of amazed at what the department has been trying to do, from the process point of view,” said Sang Han, the director of congressional and governmental affairs for the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, also in Washington. A Senate aide, however, said that the teacher-preparation rules haven’t been a major topic of discussion.

In the meantime, other members of the task force say they’ve found the new partnerships to be useful beyond the pending rules.

“Working with the task force, we’re able to make certain other offices on the university campuses stay abreast of movement on these issues and how they can help,” said Sharon P. Robinson, the president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, in Washington.

The Higher Education Act is due for reauthorization next year, but a glut of other pending legislation—including the long-delayed rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known in its current version as No Child Left Behind—makes a timely renewal unlikely.

Also participating on the higher education task force are representatives of the American Psychological Association, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Task Force Formed to Sway Teacher-Prep Rules

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