Teacher Preparation

New Federal Teacher-Prep Rules Draw Praise and Criticism

By Brenda Iasevoli — October 14, 2016 5 min read
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While the U.S. Department of Education’s long-awaited teacher preparation rules drew praise from some longtime critics of teacher training quality, groups representing teachers see the final rules released Wednesday as punitive and say they will end up deterring graduates from working in high-needs schools.

On the one hand, supporters hope the data that states are required to collect under the new rules will guide teacher-training programs toward more effective practices. And data was a main topic at a roundtable discussion about teacher prep at University of Southern California Rossier School of Education in Los Angeles on Wednesday after the new rules were released. (The discussion was livestreamed on Facebook.)

Benjamin Riley, executive director of Deans for Impact, a group that aims to overhaul teacher training, said at the discussion that he had high hopes data collection could help leaders of teacher-prep programs across the country who struggle to know how their graduates are doing on the job.

“So [prep programs] may do all the work that they need to do to prepare those teachers, and they don’t know what’s happening [with their graduates],” said Riley. “Are they getting the right mentorship? Are they struggling? Do they need support?”

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., who participated in the discussion, also stressed the importance of data collection in improving school districts’ ability to recruit the right teachers. He cited, for example, what he called a “supply-and-demand mismatch” in which high-needs schools have difficulty recruiting much-needed bilingual teachers as well as secondary science and math teachers. “The way to rectify that is with better data and more coherence between teacher prep and K-12,” said King.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based advocacy group that tracks teacher policies, sees the new rules as a step in the right direction. The required data collection, in the group’s view, will shine a light on the best teacher-preparation programs, and it will also identify the ones that aren’t up to snuff. The programs that aren’t adequately preparing teachers for the classroom won’t qualify for federal grants.

Kate Walsh, president of the group, warned that states must be held accountable if the rules are to have any effect. “For these regulations to have their intended impact, it will be critical for the next administration to demonstrate an equally strong commitment to their enforcement, ensuring that states don’t just fall into compliance mode,” she said in a statement.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education acknowledged in a statement that the rules take into consideration concerns raised during a public comment period, namely by giving states more autonomy on how to judge the effectiveness of training programs. Moreover, the data that states collect could inform program tweaks, the group said. “The release of this rule provides a catalyst at the state level to generate data regarding our graduates’ impact in the classroom and inform continuous program improvement,” said Sharon P. Robinson, president of the group.

Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, applauded the new guidelines, but also challenged teacher-training programs to move beyond what is required of them.

“These regs represent the minimum that every teacher-prep program must offer to aspiring educators,” he said. “It is now the responsibility of the entire field to use these changes to continually improve, innovate, and transform our teacher-education programs, placing the same high expectations on teacher-ed programs that we ultimately place on program graduates.”

Not everyone is pleased with the new rules. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten sharply criticized the regulations’ emphasis on judging teacher-training programs on their graduates’ ability to improve student learning. She argues this will only encourage teacher-training programs to steer their graduates away from schools where new teachers are likely to face more challenges.

“The regulations will punish teacher-prep programs whose graduates go on to teach in our highest-needs schools, most often those with high concentrations of students who live in poverty and English-language learner; the exact opposite strategy of what we need,” Weingarten said in a statement.

Although the new rules leave it up to states to decide how to measure learning, Weingarten sees an inherent danger in penalizing programs whose graduates don’t show they are improving student outcomes. Beginning in the 2021-22 school year, prep programs that are not rated effective can lose federal TEACH grants that provide $4,000 each year for students who commit to teaching in a high-need field in a low-income community.

Both Weingarten and National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia see in the rules the potential to use student test scores to measure the effectiveness of prep programs, hearkening back to what Eskelsen Garcia in a statement called “the failed No Child Left Behind days.”

Weingarten suggests that the U.S. look to Finland as a model for teacher preparation done right. There, teachers learn theory in combination with plenty of on-the-job training. “Programs are highly selective and free of cost,” she said of Finland’s teacher training.” Their graduates go on to work in supportive, professional environments with strong unions, fair pay and benefits, and without high-stakes testing.”

Teacher-prep programs have long been criticized for churning out graduates who are ill-prepared to lead their own classrooms. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who began the effort to overhaul teacher-prep rules in 2009, had harsh words for training programs in an open letter to college presidents and education school deans earlier this month. “The system we have for training teachers lacks rigor, is out of step with the times, and is given to extreme grade inflation that leaves teachers unprepared and their future students at risk,” he wrote.

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