Teacher-preparation programs are under greater accountability pressure than at any time in recent history. The sources of this pressure include a number of factors: the move to the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (or CAEP) standards for the accreditation of these programs; the recent release of federal regulations for teacher-preparation programs; and the state-level efforts to more closely and publicly evaluate them.
In each instance, accountability efforts are focused on a growing list of detailed requirements for teacher preparation, including requirements for admission and expectations for teacher-candidate outcomes. On the list is also a closer inspection of the link between programs and their graduates’ “effectiveness” ratings, measured in large part by students’ standardized-test scores.
As teacher-educators at Michigan State University’s College of Education—a large, public, and highly ranked preparation program—we agree that it is important for those who prepare educators to be clear about what new teachers should know and be able to do; understand how the learning opportunities provided in teacher preparation are designed to lead to the desired knowledge and practices; and collect and learn from evidence about how these opportunities are, or are not, supporting novice teachers in developing the desired knowledge and practices.
However, we are concerned that, as in K-12 education, the intensification of the accountability process will lead to, at best, a lack of focus on equity and the real issues that face new teachers (and, ultimately, all teachers) and, at worst, a system of disincentives that discourage teacher-preparation programs from developing and enacting innovative methods to prepare teachers to work with high-needs schools and districts.
We see how this is happening already and would like to propose a new meaning and metric for program effectiveness. Our goal is to use the mechanism of accountability to reward programs that are working to address the most pressing teacher-preparation issues of our time: preparing educators to teach diverse groups of students, disrupt systems of privilege and oppression, and provide high-quality learning opportunities for all students.
Currently, there are at least three ways in which recent accountability systems discourage a focus on preparing teachers to enact equitable instructional practices with diverse groups of learners:
1. While language about equity is embedded in the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (InTASC) and CAEP standards, it is not the focus of either. Equity, in both instances, is discussed in broad ways that group related ideas and practices into single standards. Further, any focus on equity exists in tension with other standards, such as admission requirements for entering cohorts of teacher-candidates. This can have the effect of limiting the diversity of the applicant pool by relying too heavily on the quality of the prospective teachers’ high school experiences.
2. New accountability systems require the evaluation of teacher-preparation programs based, in part, on the teaching “effectiveness” of their graduates. However, because standardized-test-achievement outcomes are easier to measure than equity outcomes, this focus on teacher effectiveness typically leads to a focus on test performance at the expense of attention to equity.
Will we measure what we care about, or will we measure what is easy to measure?
3. Further, this emphasis on the effectiveness of teacher-preparation-program graduates in K-12 schools creates a disincentive to place them in struggling schools and districts. This is not because these new teachers are ill-prepared to teach in high-needs contexts, but instead because the measures used to identify effectiveness in these contexts are faulty.
Given these issues, how should we be evaluating the effectiveness of preparation programs?
First, we should evaluate programs by their success in preparing educators to teach an increasingly diverse U.S. student population. We do not mean “success” only in terms of students’ standardized-test scores, but also in terms of their physical and mental well-being, as well as their ability to pursue futures of their choice, and interrupt systems of privilege and oppression. Preparation programs should also be evaluated by the opportunities provided in preservice coursework for candidates that allow them to reflect on privilege and bias, while also providing opportunities to work with students from cultures different from their own. The presence of such opportunities, beyond token “multicultural education” courses, can build the teacher-candidates’ capacity to support the learning of diverse student populations, particularly those who are not currently well served.
Prominent scholars in education have repeatedly made the case that educators working with diverse U.S. student populations must be prepared to attend to the unique historical and sociopolitical experiences of their students. Specifically, critical education researchers and practitioners have strongly rejected the prevailing up-by-the-bootstraps, colorblind approach to educating diverse communities of students. Instead, they argue that all educators must be prepared to acknowledge the experiences of students from marginalized communities and encourage high academic standards, while also attending to their students’ humanity.
Given these commitments, we propose that accountability and accreditation metrics used to evaluate teacher-preparation programs should account for teachers’ ability to support the development of positive self-affect in their students; cultivate interest in content areas among students; practice socially equitable pedagogies and teaching strategies; and develop trust and care among students. From a practical standpoint, an educator’s understanding of and attention to a student’s psychosocial needs is a prerequisite for that student’s ability to learn. And a teacher’s inability to ensure that these needs are met, particularly among diverse student populations, only perpetuates cycles of inequality and marginalization.
Second, we should be evaluating the effectiveness of teacher-preparation programs in terms of their efforts to support schools and communities in all aspects of the programs’ work, not only in their ability to prepare teachers. For example, we should measure programs’ effectiveness by their ability to provide professional development that addresses problems of practice and explores new methods of achieving a broad vision of educational success. These concerns should be identified by local K-12 stakeholders—policymakers, education leaders, and the community.
Programs should be evaluated based on their capacity to support equitable outcomes in diverse schools and communities. To judge a preparation program solely by the work of its graduates and not also by the work of its practitioners—the faculty—is to miss an important aspect of what it means to be an effective teacher-preparation program. Focusing only on limited measures of the output of a program’s graduates puts unreasonable expectations for profound change and system disruption—including of privilege and power—on novice teachers solely, rather than on a community of novice and experienced teachers and teacher-educators working together to effect change.
Our commitment to these ideas leaves us with at least two important sets of questions related to accountability and teacher preparation: Will we measure what we care about, or will we measure what is easy to measure? And, are we willing to do the work involved in measuring the contributions by teacher-preparation programs to long-term social and educational change, or are we simply interested in raising standardized-test scores?
If we are not working to prepare teachers to engage in equity-oriented and socially just change, then why are we, in colleges and universities, engaged in teacher preparation at all? Our stance is that teacher-preparation programs in colleges of education are well positioned to prepare teachers who will become agents of social change, but we need the accountability metrics that will support, not constrain, this work.
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2016 edition of Education Week as Increased Accountability of Teacher Prep Gives Equity the Back Seat