A law crafted to make the nation’s teacher-preparation and -licensure systems more accountable to the public ultimately falls far short of that goal and perpetuates misinformation in the process, critics assert.
The 4-year-old provision requiring teacher-training programs and states to submit report cards offered a momentous opportunity to improve the quality of the teaching workforce—an opportunity, argue many in the education community, that has been squandered. They go so far as to charge that the information provided is virtually meaningless, and that a Department of Education analysis of it condemning traditional teacher-preparation programs is unfair.
“I have rarely seen such a high level of anger,” said Arthur E. Wise, the president of the Washington-based National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, an organization that currently accredits 525 teacher-training institutions. “It is not true that ... colleges of education are not effective.”
Immediately following the release of the June 11 report, many in the higher education community began assailing it and restated complaints laid out during the development of the 1998 law and its implementation.
The Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that seeks to improve the education of poor children, immediately fired off its own analysis, disputing the department’s data. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which represents more than 700 colleges with teacher-preparation programs, is currently conducting its own study of the numbers.
What’s more, state officials in Wisconsin, worried that their efforts have been misrepresented, are mounting a written response to the Education Department.
Critics complain that colleges and states spent scarce resources during a fiscal crunch to compile data that are not meaningful in determining the worth of teacher-preparation programs and licensure systems. They charge that the department selectively used such information to frame an argument against them. And they contend that outside research referred to in the study was manipulated or provided by biased sources.
“I believe that there were prejudices already in place, and that [the Education Department] was wanting to somehow validate them,” said Sam W. Swofford, the executive director of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the state agency that certifies educators. The report, he added, “has no value.”
Even some who agree with the Education Department’s conclusions say there are problems with the report.
The agency rightly highlighted alternative-certification programs to be used as models for all teacher-preparation programs in the analysis, yet portrayed them as a quick-and-dirty means of certification that served to “set back” the movement by “a decade,” said C. Emily Feistritzer, the president of the National Center for Education Information, a private research group in Washington that supports alternative paths to teaching. Many such programs are of high quality, she said, adding that the department’s analysis was based on much of her research.
The department maintains that the way it has carried out the law has sparked the beginning of desperately needed changes.
Opponents are angered because the portrayal of traditional teacher education was not flattering, said Michael J. Petrilli, an aide to Deputy Secretary of Education William D. Hansen.
Congress passed Title II of the Higher Education Act in 1998 in an attempt to provide accountability in a system that was under attack from policymakers and members of the public. Many observers perceive typical schools of education to be mediocre institutions that function as cash cows for their universities.
For the first time, Congress asked 1,300 institutions of higher education and alternative-certification programs receiving federal aid to outline standards for teachers, requirements for initial certification, and passing rates on assessments, among other data, and to place the information in a report card.
The documents were handed over to state officials, who put together a second report card. In addition to compiling data from institutions, states described evaluation procedures for teacher-training programs, the number of educators working without licenses, and state efforts to improve the quality of teaching. States also were required to rank programs and place schools into one of four quartiles.
States were given great freedom, however, to interpret those orders. They could, for example, set their own passing rates on assessments.
The first college report cards outlining data for the 1999-2000 academic year were turned in to states in April 2001; states handed over the completed portfolios by last October. And in June of this year, the Department of Education presented an analysis of the data to Congress, as the law requires. (“Paige Uses Report as a Rallying Cry to Fix Teacher Ed.,” June 19, 2002.)
“The intent of this was to create a reporting system that gives the public information about the performance of teacher-preparation programs, as well as information about state policies and practices related to [teacher] quality,” Mr. Petrilli said. “We did that.”
Many others in the field disagree. In fact, critics say the law and its implementation are riddled with problems.
First off, the questions posed to colleges and states were restrictive, they say. For example, Congress relied on standardized-test scores to gauge the knowledge of prospective teachers—assessments deemed incomplete by those who argue a variety of measurements should be used to do so.
In addition, federal lawmakers allowed state officials to select their own licensure tests and set passing rates on those exams. While some require difficult tests and set high passing rates, others use less rigorous exams and lower bars. Moreover, states have discretion in deciding which students’ scores are to be reported.
“In the end, the first public accounting of the quality of teacher preparation,” the analysis from the Education Trust says, “falls woefully short of providing policymakers and the public with basic information on how many of its teachers meet prescribed professional standards, how those teachers are distributed across districts, and how well colleges and universities are preparing teachers to teach in a standards-based system.”
The Education Department defends the system. The questions asked of colleges and states were basic in nature, and officials were permitted to attach supplemental information to explain their efforts further, Mr. Petrilli said.
And while the agency acknowledges the difficulty of comparing states, it is a challenge inherent in the American system of government, Mr. Petrilli said. No national standards for teacher- preparation programs exist, and states continue to be gatekeepers to the K-12 system, realities that won’t change anytime soon, he said.
Despite the limitations, the numbers tell a shocking story, Mr. Petrilli said.
For example, Virginia alone sets passing scores for prospective teachers near the national average; all other states set the bar lower. In addition, only 23 states have tied teacher standards to academic standards for students.
Moreover, states place too much emphasis on pedagogical knowledge and not enough on understanding academic subject matter. They also set up extensive barriers for prospective educators who want to enter the profession at a time of great need, the Education Department analysis says.
“The data collected for this report suggest that schools of education and formal teacher-training programs are failing to produce the types of highly qualified teachers that the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act demands,” the report says, referring to the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act requiring that all teachers be “highly qualified” by the 2005-06 school year.
Detractors contend that the Education Department misinterpreted the data, which were compiled by Westat, a research corporation based in Rockville, Md. “The Title II data show that most [traditional] programs graduate teachers who meet today’s state licensing requirements,” NCATE’s Mr. Wise said in a statement following the report’s release. “These requirements include a content major for prospective teachers in 38 states.”
The Education Department highlighted only the findings that supported its presupposition that traditional teacher-preparation programs should be dismantled, charged Andrew F. Kirchmeier, the chair of the educational studies department at Ripon College in Wisconsin.
“It was a political report with barely a sufficient amount of scholarly references,” he said. “If you’re going to analyze it, you should look at multiple views.”
The research cited in the analysis is inadequate, agreed Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University and a former executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.
She also charged that some of the statistics cited in the report on such key points as teacher-retention rates were inaccurate or misconstrued.
The Education Department used the best, most current studies available, Mr. Petrilli said, which officials found to be more credible than many journals requiring peer review. Moreover, he said, the report was careful to mention that much of the research conducted on teacher quality is conflicting.
Ms. Feistritzer, whose research was cited extensively in the department’s report, found the analysis to be accurate.
Still, she worries that the language chosen to express the agency’s opinion will give alternative-certification programs a bad rap. Ms. Feistritzer characterized those descriptions as “volatile.”
“The language bothers me because it puts an emphasis on fast tracks and streamlining,” she said. “I think alternative routes are better sold on the basis that they are improved ways to prepare nontraditional candidates.”
Despite glitches in the system, the Title II law has forced a conversation, said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who helped write the mandate.
“Most of this information has not been available before, and certainly not on a national level,” he said. “This has been an incredibly important process.”
Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the law next year.
A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2002 edition of Education Week as Critics Claim Missteps On Execution of Title II