Teacher Preparation

Ed. Dept. Teacher-Prep Regulations Released; Aim to Tie Aid to Program Performance

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 25, 2014 8 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education, at long last, has released proposed regulations that flesh out federal accountability requirements for teacher preparation.

Those provisions have been in Title II of the law in some form since 1998, but have largely been considered weak soup. The law permitted states to set up their own systems for identifying “at risk” and “low-performing” programs, and more than half the states have never designated a single education school or program as such.

The Education Department’s attempt to tighten them up has been in the works since early 2012; its proposed rule has been inexplicably delayed for months.

We will have a full story up soon at edweek.org, complete with handy-dandy chart outlining the current HEA requirements and those in the proposed rules. But for those wonks who want the immediate takeaways, here’s our first look, in a (hopefully) easy-to-understand Q & A format.

What do I need to know? The Cliffs’ Notes version is that under the new rules, states would have to use federally prescribed measures to make their determinations. These would include programs’ placement and retention rates, surveys of employers and of the program graduates, and assurances that the programs provide quality clinical training, among other things. From that data, states would assign each program to one of at least four categories—from low-performing through exceptional—and only those in the two highest categories could offer federal TEACH grants.

The 400-paged regulation spells out all of the nitty gritty details (and there are a lot of them).

400 pages of regs?! Ack. Why does this matter again?: It matters because, along with the Education Department’s “gainful employment” proposal for for-profit training programs and its forthcoming college-rating rules, it signals the agency’s intent to try to hold higher education more accountable for outcomes.

The rules also considerably expand the scope of teacher-preparation reporting: They would require it at the individual program level, not merely the average across an institution. (For comparison’s sake, the department estimates that there are about 25,000 individual programs within about 2,200 providers.)

And finally, the rules would set an interesting precedent in attempting to tie financial aid in the form of TEACH grants to designations of program quality.

Don’t the higher education associations hate that?: Yep.

Wait, do some of these quality measures sound vaguely familiar? Yes, a national accreditor for teacher preparation issued standards last year that require similar reporting on achievement outcomes and other quality measures.

In general, such measures are controversial among teacher educators. Critics say there’s too many other factors that could skew them, like the working conditions in schools that preparation graduates end up in.

What are TEACH grants, anyway?: A hybrid program that gives candidates who promise to teach in high-needs subjects and in low-income schools $4,000 a year to pay for teacher preparation. Failing to fulfill the service commitment, of 4 years of teaching within 8 years of completing a program, converts all the grant funding into a federal loan.

Give us the scoop. Are there any big changes from department’s earlier drafts?: From a conceptual standpoint, not really. Most of the features of the prosposed rules were in those earlier drafts. But there are two changes worth paying special attention to. For one, the timeline for states to begin using the new system is extended, and includes one pilot year of reporting the new results without programs facing consequences for them. The TEACH grant withholding wouldn’t begin until 2020 at the earliest.

A second change would exempt STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs that contain teacher certification from having to earn an “effective” rating under the new systems in order to offer TEACH grants.Those programs could offer the grants as long as at least 60 percent of recipients completed a year of their service requirements within three years of graduating.

Is that a loophole?: Potentially. It means those programs wouldn’t necessarily have to meet the same quality requirements as other ones. Expect a lot of feedback in comments on this.

So is this a done deal?: No. the public can comment for 60 days on the rules after they’re published in the Federal Register. The Department can withdraw the rules, or modify them before it publishes a final rule.

Once they’re finalized, could these rules lead to programs closing?: Not directly. States are the only ones with the authority to close programs.

What do other people out there make of all this?: I’m so glad you asked. We’ll be adding their comments below as they come in.

Let’s start with Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education:

“Teacher candidates want training that makes them better, sooner ... This is nothing short of a moral issue. All educators want to do a 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.”

Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers: “With these proposed regulations, the administration is moving to rate teacher preparation programs based partly on the test scores of the K-12 students of the graduates of the programs in question. By replicating the K-12 test-and-punish model— which was spawned by No Child Left Behind and has been the subject of increasing criticism—the administration is simply checking a box instead of thoughtfully using regulations to help craft a sustainable solution that raises the bar for the teaching profession.

It is our strong hope that the administration will be persuaded to move away from the excessive use of high-stakes testing and its consequences. There’s no evidence these regulations will lead to improvement and plenty of reason to believe they will cause harm. Teacher preparation programs that send graduates to teach in high-need schools, where research shows the test scores are likely to be lower and the teacher turnover higher, will receive lower ratings and could lose funding.”

Charlie Barone, Democrats for Education Reform:

“The failure, over the course of decades, to remedy deficiencies in teacher training by those institutions whose job it is to select and prepare teachers constitutes educational negligence of the highest order. The U.S. Department of Education is stepping in here because educational institutions have repeatedly abdicated their responsibility to set and enforce high standards for the teaching profession.

“Once states set benchmarks that draw on newly available data, the administration should give schools appropriate time to meet them. With these standards in place, federal subsidies should be contingent on schools meeting expectations.”

Arthur Levine, President of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation (and former Teachers College, Columbia University dean):

“Some in teacher preparation will voice concerns with these proposed regulations, taking issue with how to get the necessary data systems in place or with whether existing accreditation models are sufficient to meet these goals. They will ask for more time to examine the issues or to scrutinize every idea or turn of phrase in this draft document.

“All of us involved in teacher education should look for ways to strengthen these regulations and improve the teacher prep process. But let us be clear: we need real action now. Our colleges and universities have waited far too long to transform these programs to meet the needs of both today and tomorrow. We cannot afford to wait as another generation of teachers passes through programs that are lacking. In the states where Woodrow Wilson has worked, we have seen a real hunger—from state leaders, from school districts, and from colleges themselves—to enact the sort of changes needed. We must act together—and swiftly—to change the very fabric of teacher education nationwide. These regulations are the first step toward achieving that.”

The Education Trust: We are also pleased to see the department propose that states follow the lead of pioneering states to create accountability systems for all of their preparation programs based on at least these measures. We are pleased, too, that the department requires consequences for the worst-of-the-worst. Right now, even the lowest performing programs are able to award TEACH Grants, federal dollars for teacher candidates who commit to teaching in high-need schools. The proposed rules would end this harmful practice.

Becky Pringle, Vice President, National Education Association: “We appreciate that the Department recognizes that the focus for decision-making for teacher preparation program improvement should be at the state-level and that all stakeholders, including faculty, must be engaged. Using teacher retention data, surveying graduates and principals and specialized accreditation are positive measures. The Department recognized the importance of content, pedagogy, and clinical experiences and the regulations are aligned to [national accreditation] standards, which NEA helped develop.

“The NEA is troubled by the inappropriate use of student test scores in any teacher preparation accountability system. We need to be sure policy supports improvements in teacher preparation and provides the necessary resources to help programs meet high standards. We are opposed to the use of flawed tests and value-added measures to make high stakes decisions about students, teachers, or teacher preparation.”

Sharon Robinson, president, American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education: “In their current form, these proposed regulations have the potential to halt or even reverse the hard-won progress of current teacher-preparation program reform efforts. We are deeply concerned about the proposed regulations for the approximately 25,000 teacher-preparation programs across this nation.

“These rules highlight not only the Administration’s determination to create a federal ratings system across higher education, but could also turn back the clock on innovation and reform in educator preparation—negatively affecting teacher candidates, schools and universities, the teaching profession, and, ultimately, our country’s millions of PK-12 students.”

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