Proposed new rules from the U.S. Department of Education that would require states to rate teacher-preparation programs on the basis of outcomes, including student learning and employment-retention statistics for their recent graduates, make sense in theory. The public and aspiring educators deserve to know which programs turn out competent teachers.
In practice, however, implementing new rules doesn’t necessarily mean teacher education programs will improve.
Many scholars have criticized the measures suggested by the department that states might use for outcomes: the reliance on a single standardized test to judge growth in student learning; burdensome classroom-observation systems that strain the capacity of administrators; the limits of existing methodologies to completely eliminate the effects of school or student-background influences in tracing the contributions of individual teachers; and the measurement errors inherent in such systems.
These are legitimate concerns, but there’s a deeper problem: the idea that measures alone can spur improvement. Two problems with continual searches for upgraded measures are readily apparent.
First, states have had measures of teacher education programs’ outcomes for years. But they haven’t acted on them. They have administered licensure exams for decades, for example. But they have set passing rates way too low and have rarely taken any action against schools whose graduates have the lowest scores. According to the education policy think tank Education Sector, a majority of states have never identified a low-performing program, and only 129 of 13,000 programs have ever been singled out by a state for low performance.
The political will to confront weak programs (especially those in the districts of politically powerful legislators) is noticeably absent, and imposing sanctions such as those that the federal government is considering (denying student aid to candidates at ineffective schools) focuses on the victims—often the neediest students—not the schools and the states.
The evaluation of education schools in this country does indeed need fixing."
Second, states not only lack will, they lack capacity. The number of education schools that could benefit from help to improve far outnumber the few that might merit closing as a result of any outcome-measurement system. We know from studies of states that already have systems of tracing teacher contributions to student learning back to education schools that there’s a wide variation in college response. Some colleges know what to do with the data, what changes they might suggest, but many don’t.
More specific than the old rules, the new rules call for states to offer technical assistance to low-performing teacher-prep programs, including “providing programs with information on the specific indicators used to determine the program’s rating” and “helping identify potential research and other resources to assist program improvement.”
But state agencies have little experience and few staff members in this area. Might the federal government offer meaningful incentives to states to design, test, and share approaches to strengthening weak education schools and support research to assess effective interventions? It seems deeply cynical to require states to institute fancy new measurement systems while knowing that most have no approach to improving weak education schools.
Make no mistake: The evaluation of education schools in this country does indeed need fixing. Data about education schools often focus on input information, such as the qualifications of entrants into teacher education programs. An outcome approach is warranted. But new measures that make headlines are no substitute for policies and assistance designed to improve the teacher education programs themselves.
A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2015 edition of Education Week as Measurement Alone Cannot Propel Improvement