A panel of negotiators convened by the U.S. Department of Education had some lively exchanges here last week over ways to make federally required teacher education “report cards” a more useful and accurate gauge of program quality for states, teacher programs themselves, and the public—and to set guidelines for identifying the weakest programs.
Whatever new rules are drafted through the process known as negotiated rulemaking could carry high stakes for programs. That’s not only because of the cost and burden of such changes, but also because teacher-training programs’ eligibility for federal student financial aid potentially hinge on the new requirements.
In initial discussions that raised more questions than answers, the negotiators debated the utility of various proposals for new reporting, sought to reconcile the decade-old reporting system with a host of new developments in teacher education, and, ultimately, sparred over whether the Education Department’s proposals for the overhaul bump against the limits of its regulatory authority.
The requirements, outlined in Title II of the Higher Education Act, compel both states and teacher-preparation programs to produce report cards with information on certification, licensure-test results, and candidate numbers. States must also identify annually which of their teacher-training programs are “at risk” or “low performing.”
The requirements have been in place since 1998, and were recently updated in the 2008 rewrite of the HEA. Last week’s lawmaking marks the first attempt to use the regulatory process to alter the requirements.
Yes or No
As far back as last February, the department outlined plans to use the negotiated-rulemaking process to streamline the current requirements, institute additional reporting measures, and fill in gray areas.
The process gathers input for regulations from a variety of interested parties, including teacher educators, accreditors, financial-aid officials, and teachers’ unions, but it comes with a catch. If the negotiators cannot reach a consensus on a set of draft guidelines, the agency can craft its own set.
Among other changes, the Education Department wants to require programs to report on their graduates’ ability to help raise student academic achievement; the results of candidate surveys; and graduates’ placement rates in school districts. And it wants to set a definition for “high-quality teacher-preparation program” for the purposes of eligibility for TEACH grants, a federal program to subsidize tuition for teacher-candidates who agree to serve in high-needs schools. Nowhere in the law is that term defined.
While the 18 negotiators and their alternates agreed broadly that many of the current reporting requirements touch on important issues of interest to the field, the data-collection process is far too blunt to be of much help, they said.
The current process, for instance, only requires programs to answer yes or no to questions about whether they set minimum admission requirements. They don’t actually have to spell out the substance of that requirement.
“Right now, that data point is basically useless,” said David M. Steiner, the dean of the school of education at Hunter College, in New York City, and one of the negotiators. “That doesn’t mean that under a different context it couldn’t become useful.”
For example, a program could report the average grade point average of the program’s teacher-candidates as well as the minimum score, among other things, to give a better gauge of candidate qualifications.
In the course of discussions last week, emphasis on collecting more information on the student-teaching experience was one of the few areas of discussion that appeared to garner broad consensus. That could mean, for example, requesting additional information about whether supervisors are trained to observe and give high-quality feedback to teacher-candidates.
Still other negotiators pushed to make the institutions’ report cards more accessible.
The potential of value-added and other outcomes-based reporting measures was received with cautious optimism overall.
“I think that if done correctly, it will help us address what the National Research Council in its  report lamented as a huge deficit in our discipline, and that’s the absence of a national database” on teacher education practices, said panelist James G. Cibulka, the president of the Washington-based National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education.
“This report [card], as I understand it, would allow us to begin to build that national database,” Mr. Cibulka said, “and also, to link to characteristics of the program and allow us to build a better knowledge base about what quality is and how to institutionalize it.” Michael Morehead, an alternate negotiator and the dean of the college of education at New Mexico State University, said he supports the use of surveys. But he seemed less sanguine about the use of value-added measures.
“To track students as they go into teaching, it’s an incredibly expensive undertaking, and I’m not sure the amount of money we’ll spend will help us improve our programs,” he said.
Questions of Law
The negotiators debated the reach of the Education Department’s authority to alter one particular aspect of the Title II requirements.
The Higher Education Act says that states have the authority to set the criteria used to determine at-risk or low-performing programs. Historically, states have identified few such programs; last year, only 38 of the approximately 1,400 teacher education programs in the nation were so designated.
But the law also says that the U.S. secretary of education can issue regulations dealing with the “reliability, validity, integrity, and accuracy” of such data, and Education Department officials contend that language gives the agency the authority to outline basic acceptable parameters for those criteria.
Several negotiators expressed concern that in outlining such parameters, the department might supersede state processes for approving and accrediting teacher education programs.
“I think we may be overstepping here [by] saying, ‘Here’s a checklist of things you need to have in your program-approval process,’ when it’s already spelled out in state law,” said Vance Rugaard, the executive director of the Tennessee office of licensing and an alternate on the panel. (An alternate participates in the discussion and votes for or against consensus if a main representative is absent.)
And other panelists tried to determine whether the program-designation process should primarily identify the very weakest programs as a precursor to closure, or whether the focus should be on helping programs improve.
“We need to be able to say that we’re not all performing the same, and not every teacher-preparation program is able to produce and graduate teachers that are meeting the needs of our kids,” said Thalia Nawi, the director of the Denver Teacher Residency, a yearlong teaching-apprenticeship program run by the school district.
Financial questions are on the negotiating table, too, because the Education Department has suggested that programs identified by states as low-performing should not be eligible to offer TEACH grants. Nearly two-thirds of programs so designated do now.
The HEA’s Title II also says states that withdraw a program’s approval, potentially based on a determination that it is low-performing under Title II, would no longer be permitted to enroll students receiving federal student aid.
The rulemaking process will continue through April.
A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Negotiators Debate Reporting Rules for Teacher Preparation