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U.S. Rules Aim to Heighten Tracking of Ed. Schools’ Performance

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 26, 2014 5 min read
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Teacher colleges would need to provide proof of their graduates’ classroom skills in helping advance student learning, under proposed rules issued Nov. 25 by the U.S. Department of Education.

Programs that failed to do so could eventually be blocked from offering financial aid to would-be K-12 teachers in the form of federal Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, or TEACH, grants, according to the long-delayed proposal.

The rules are the Obama administration’s attempt to toughen what have long been considered ineffectual requirements for teacher-preparation programs in Title II of the Higher Education Act. Even so, under its proposal, few consequences would kick in before 2020—years after President Barack Obama will have left office.

The blueprint is conceptually in line with the administration’s other higher education accountability efforts, including the “gainful employment” proposal, which is focused on ensuring that for-profit job-training programs prepare students for good-paying jobs.

Such ideas have faced considerable opposition, both from the powerful higher education lobby and, more generally, from Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Criteria Outlined

Federal accountability requirements for teacher preparation were first put into place in the 1998 rewrite of the HEA. States were directed to identify poor-performing providers, but the law gave states a lot of leeway to set the criteria. As a consequence, some 34 states have never identified even one subpar institution or program.

There are approximately 2,200 traditional and alternative teacher-preparation providers hosting 25,000 programs in the United States, according to the federal data.

“This is nothing short of a moral issue,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a call with reporters. “All educators want to do a great job for their students, but too often they struggle at the beginning of their career and have to figure out too much by themselves.”

Comparison: HEA and Proposed Rules

HIGHER EDUCATION ACT

Reporting Requirements
States and colleges must report on dozens of indicators, including licensing-test scores and goals for training teachers in high-needs subjects.

Accountability Requirements
States develop their own criteria to identify teacher-preparation providers as “at risk” or “low performing.” Designations do not have to be made at the program level (e.g., elementary education and secondary mathematics).

K-12 Student Achievement as Indicator of Program Quality
No requirement

Reporting Schedule
Results are reported on state and institution report cards; a timeline is not specified.

Transparency
No provisions

Federal Financial-Aid Penalties
Only if a state also chooses to withdraw its own approval from a low-performing provider.


PROPOSED RULES
Same as HEA, with the addition of requirements below.

Reporting Requirements
States would be required to use federally set criteria to report results at the individual-program level, including information from surveys of graduates and employers; candidate-placement and -retention rates; and growth in student achievement. An advisory panel in each state would help determine weighting.

Accountability Requirements
States would be required to place programs in one of four tiers: “low performing,” “at risk,” “effective,” and “exceptional.” The new accountability requirements would be phased in from the 2015-16 through the 2018-19 academic years.

K-12 Student Achievement as Indicator of Program Quality
Required. No program could be classified as effective unless it produced evidence of satisfactory student-achievement gains.

Reporting Schedule
Results would be reported on state report cards in April and institution report cards in October, based on data collection from the previous academic year.

Transparency
Institutions would be required to “prominently and promptly” post their report card information on their websites.

Federal Financial-Aid Penalties
Same, with one difference: With the exception of those for STEM majors, any programs rated below effective two out of three years would be unable to offer federal TEACH grants. (The prohibition would take effect at the earliest in 2020-21.)

The agency’s proposal outlines new criteria states would have to use to place their programs into one of at least four categories, ranging from “low performing” to “exceptional.”

Among other requirements, states would need to consider surveys of graduates and of the school districts that hired them, as well as newly minted teachers’ placement and retention rates. And, controversially, states would have to assess whether program graduates helped to boost K-12 achievement, measured either directly on the basis of student-growth measures or via the proxy of teacher evaluations.

Research is mixed on whether such techniques as “value added” measurements—which attempt to isolate the impact of individual teachers on students’ standardized-test scores—can make clear distinctions about program quality.

The federal rules would require a separate determination for every program with at least 25 teacher-candidates enrolled; institutions with programs with fewer students could aggregate data from several programs or across multiple years.

The biggest consequence for programs under the new system concerns the TEACH grants, which provide up to $4,000 a year to support the preparation of teachers in high-need subjects who commit to four years of teaching in low-income schools. About $100 million annually is available under the program.

The rules would prevent a program scoring below “effective” on the criteria for two out of the three previous years from offering TEACH grants.

But they would make a significant exception for programs in the science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, fields that contain a certification component. Those programs would not be subject to the rating system, and could continue to offer the grants as long as 60 percent of recipients successfully completed one year of teaching within three years of finishing their programs.

Institutional Unease

Higher education lobbying groups have been opposed to the precedent-setting idea of tying financial-aid qualifications to a ratings system, and have contended that the Education Department’s regulatory efforts usurp congressional authority.

Long before the proposed rules were issued, those groups had set up a task force to counter some of the concepts the department floated during a failed 2012 attempt to craft the regulations in collaboration with select representatives from the field. But the final version closely mirrors the agency’s earlier drafts—to the chagrin of some groups.

“Frankly, building a ranking system really does not seem like the smartest way for higher education to use its precious time and energy,” said Sharon P. Robinson, the president of the Washington-based American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

The associations have also taken issue with several of the specified measures that, they argue, could be affected by factors outside programs’ control, like poor working conditions in schools.

Meanwhile, the national accrediting body for education schools, known as the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, or CAEP, has embraced measures that are similar to those found in the newly proposed rules. But Ms. Robinson said the purposes of the two efforts were vastly different.

“CAEP is about continuous improvement and peer review,” she said. “The regulations are not about that. They’re about eligibility for an important source of financial aid.”

Promises and Pitfalls

Even so, some teacher-educators are cautiously optimistic about the new rules, saying they could help build consensus on indicators of successful teacher preparation.

“There is a range of quality of programs throughout the country, and we know that there is room for growth and improvement,” said Shane P. Martin, the dean of the school of education at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles. “Indicators such as these have the potential to sort that out in a much better fashion.”

Whether that will come to pass remains an open question. In the most distinct change from the Education Department’s earlier drafts, the proposed rules carry a longer timeline. States would adopt their new identification systems in 2015-16 and phase them in through 2018-19. TEACH grant withholding would not occur until 2020-21 at the earliest, leaving plenty of time for a final rule to be changed or canceled by a future administration.

Comments on the rules are due 60 days after their publication in the Federal Register; final rules are expected by mid-2015.

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2014 edition of Education Week as Rules Aim to Heighten Ed. School Monitoring

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