Better-prepared teachers and greatly improved teacher-preparation programs are the essential ingredients of stronger academic outcomes for this nation’s K-12 students. Efforts to accelerate the pace of improvement in teacher preparation have been underway since at least 1998, when Congress established the Title II teacher-quality program and the federal “report card” on preparation-program quality. Despite significant expenditures of public and private funds on teacher-quality initiatives, however, the gains have rarely been more than modest.
Higher education in general does not appear to be moving with a sense of urgency to improve teacher preparation, and while new alternative providers arrive on the scene almost every day, some are promising and others are not. In response, in a climate where public confidence in teacher education is quite low, policymakers are seeking to ratchet up educator accountability. Consider the following:
• States and others are working for the first time to place meaningful emphasis on preparation-program outcomes as the best measures of program quality. This past December, the Council of Chief State School Officers called for a multistate effort to develop “innovative licensure assessments” and for state program-approval standards that include evidence about teacher impact on student achievement.
• The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP)—the new national accrediting body for teacher education programs—recently published draft accreditation standards proposing more rigorous standards from entry to exit, including several outcome measures discussed in this Commentary.
• A national review of preparation-program quality by the National Council on Teacher Quality will be unveiled this summer.
• New federal rules for teacher education accountability are in the works from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his agency after negotiations with various professional organizations broke down last year over which performance measures should be used.
In the weeks and months to come, these efforts should be judged by whether improved K-12 student outcomes and more successful schools are their primary aims. Existing quality-control efforts, such as accreditation and current state oversight, have protected weak programs and let too many underprepared teachers into the classroom.
To improve the quality of preparation programs so that they reliably produce teachers who can achieve better results with students should be a national imperative. These policy initiatives should be seen as healthy pressure points that will contribute to the long-term survival of quality teacher preparation in higher education.
Effective accountability and quality control for the preparation of teachers must include measures of K-12 classroom teaching performance by program graduates; indicators of academic achievement by K-12 students taught by program graduates; high-quality assessments of teacher content and pedagogical knowledge; and indications that programs are meeting the staffing needs of schools in their state.
In light of the advance of the Common Core State Standards and increasing teacher mobility between states, it is past time for agreement among all states on the quality standards by which teacher education will be judged. With the renewed focus on teacher preparation across the nation, this is an opportune time for CAEP and others to influence changes in the states.
To many people, the most important outcome of a preparation program is teacher effectiveness—the extent to which program graduates help their K-12 students learn.
High-quality instruction is the main in-school driver for student achievement, yet only a few states assess teacher effectiveness in this way. Even so, about 20 states are headed in this direction through federal Race to the Top grants and other initiatives. Whether university faculty and administrators support this direction, analyses and judgments will be made about their programs based on the performance of program graduates.
Effective policy and a solid teacher-quality pipeline will be served best through a small set of outcomes measured transparently, reported openly, and employed for (and by) every program in every state."
The classroom-teaching performance of program graduates is a key outcome that programs, accrediting bodies, and states ought to use as a quality measure. No single measure tells us everything about a program or its graduates, and so we think classroom-teaching performance is a second key outcome measure. In fact, there are two performance-related measures here: the teaching performance of candidates during the preparation program and their teaching quality after graduating. As the Measures of Effective Teaching, or MET, project has reported, a system of classroom observation must support fair judgments based on reliable and valid findings for individual teachers and for groups of teachers. Currently, only a few classroom protocols used by teacher education programs or in schools meet standards of rigor.
Production of new teachers in high-demand fields is highly relevant to the needs of schools and their students. For this reason, program accountability and accreditation should judge how well each program contributes effective teachers for shortage fields and high-need schools.
Given chronic overproduction of new teachers by some programs, states ought to enact policies that cap the number of new teacher licenses granted in low-demand areas like elementary education and create more incentives that attract students into high-demand fields, such as mathematics and the physical sciences.
Preparation-program accreditation and accountability must take account of the content knowledge and professional knowledge of teacher-candidates and program graduates. Praxis and similar educator assessments have been used by states for many years, but few outside (or inside) the profession see them as credible indicators of teacher knowledge or skills. According to the National Research Council, these tests are not designed to “predict the degree of teaching success a beginning teacher will demonstrate.” And the U.S. Department of Education says 95 percent or more of all those who take teaching exams in the United States pass.
CAEP’s draft standards document calls for 80 percent passing scores for all program graduates as a quality indicator. The draft standards also seek common passing scores in all states without saying where the passing cutoff should be. We think these scores should be set so that candidates would have to score in the top third of all test-takers to enter the profession. Common passing scores at this level can be accomplished now through state action even before new teacher tests are developed and put in place.
This reform should be the first step toward wholesale change in teacher testing. CAEP, the state chiefs, and Secretary Duncan ought to lean on the experience of other professions when it comes to tests of content knowledge and professional knowledge.
Nursing, accounting, engineering, and medicine have uniform state accountability requirements for professional education programs and for their graduates. Even with state-based licensing processes, these policies have been implemented nationwide, without undermining professional autonomy, faculty academic freedom, or the principles of federalism—three of the red herrings raised against national policies by many teacher-educators.
While outcomes and measures described in this essay would take some time to realize fully, effective policy and a solid teacher-quality pipeline will be served best through a small set of outcomes measured transparently, reported openly, and employed for (and by) every teacher-preparation program in every state.
Given where teacher education now stands as a field, this may strike many as a distant dream rather than a realistic scenario. Nonetheless, current opportunities and pressures for reform can be leveraged to improve preparation-program quality, strengthen the ability of program graduates to be effective teachers, and continue the difficult work of raising the status of teaching and teacher preparation in the United States.
Without ambitious goals and a sense of urgency, our children will wait another generation before they all have the teachers they need and deserve.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Education Week as A Good Time for Progress in Teacher Prep