Despite widespread agreement over the importance of effective teachers, higher education remains divided over how to prove that teaching programs are producing them.
The latest evidence: the emergence of a new accreditation group, the Association for Advancing Quality in Educator Preparation, or AAQEP, seeking to give teacher-preparation programs its stamp of approval.
The group’s recent launch—its website debuted last month—is a surprise to some who’d spent years working toward unifying the teacher education field under a common set of expectations.
AAQEP is moving to capture market share quickly. It has already been approved in Hawaii to pilot its approach and has held discussions with several other states. It plans to release standards for public review by January and begin conducting reviews later in 2018.
AAQEP’s rise comes less than a decade after two accreditors for teacher preparation merged into a single body, known as the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.
“This has all been done. Two accreditors didn’t work really well,” said CAEP’s president, Christopher A. Koch, a former Illinois state education superintendent. “A single set of standards for the profession is important.”
Many of the new group’s advisers formerly worked for CAEP or served on its panels.
What looks like a bureaucratic squabble at first glance contains deeper meaning, observers say: Divisions persist about how accreditors should ensure that teachers graduating from teacher education programs are classroom-ready.
“Conceptually, teacher prep has been in a state of paralysis for some time now,” said Barmak Nassirian, the director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “This whole issue of quality assurance and accreditation is proving particularly vexing for them in ways that are historically surprising, because obviously teaching has been around for a long time.”
Two Become One
The last half-century has seen any number of attempts to improve the quality of teacher-preparation programs nationally. Among the most recent was a set of Obama-era regulations requiring states to rate their educator-preparation programs, which President Donald Trump has since scrapped.
National accreditation of teacher programs, though voluntary in most states, has been the field’s attempt at self-policing: About 900 of the country’s roughly 2,100 different providers participate; most of them are traditional schools and departments of education at colleges and universities.
In 2010, two former accreditors united to create CAEP, in what was billed as an attempt to unify the diffuse field.
CAEP’s subsequent history is tortuous. Colleges pushed back on new requirements for teacher-candidates’ grade point averages and for collecting information on how newly minted teachers perform in the field.
CAEP later introduced some flexibility into those standards, but also slimmed down the number of ways programs could demonstrate that they met them. Initially, it offered three separate routes—an attempt to appease supporters of both predecessor groups—but about a year ago, under Koch, CAEP narrowed those down to just one pathway.
That caused some former CAEP supporters to sour on the process.
“When CAEP formed, there was still choice initially,” said David Cantaffa, an assistant provost for educator preparation for the State University of New York, who is on a working group for AAQEP. When the pathways “dwindled to one, there was no more choice.”
Indeed, one of AAQEP’s selling points appears to respond to the call for more options.
AAQEP’s new standards will have some “bright lines” on things like teachers’ content knowledge, but they will also give programs room to show how they’re being innovative within their local context. This could mean giving more flexibility in showing, for instance, how they’re working with local school districts to devise field experiences for would-be teachers and working to improve the diversity of the profession, said Mark LaCelle-Peterson, the president of AAQEP.
“We’re trying to crack this problem of supporting and fostering innovation, and that’s been hard within accreditation,” he said. “How do you have a common system for accreditation nationally when the solutions to problems in education are intensely local?”
AAQEP advisers also say they want the process to be more supportive earlier in the review cycle, perhaps by drawing from improvement science.
“We’re thinking about how can we use the standards to involve educator-preparation programs early and really collaborate with them to self-identify areas for improvement and strengths,” said Joseph Lubig, the associate dean of the education school at Northern Michigan University, who co-chairs the panel devising AAQEP’s processes. “We’re really trying to bring that personalized, contextualized approach.”
CAEP officials aren’t convinced that kind of flexibility is the answer to bettering schools of education.
“We understand people like choices and I think that’s fine to a degree, provided those choices mean something in terms of the preparation of teachers,” said Koch, CAEP’s president. “If you put in ‘accreditation-light’ versions, it’s going to be a problem.”
He and other observers note that AAQEP was largely, though not exclusively, formed by people with ties to one of the groups that preceded CAEP, known as the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, or TEAC; indeed, LaCelle-Peterson was its president at one point.
TEAC favored a looser, “inquiry-based” process in which teaching programs laid out their goals and vision and were audited on how well they met them. Some describe it as akin to the process for writing a dissertation. CAEP now puts a heavier focus on collecting evidence, including by tracking new teachers after they graduate. But colleges say that can be burdensome and costly.
“AAQEP is an effort to bring back inquiry into the process of accreditation,” said Cantaffa. “There are unsettled questions in terms of assessing program candidates. ... You can’t in my mind demand that programs offer evidence in relation to unsettled questions. What you can do is set up a system for exploring what might be good evidence.”
Choice, though, can have a downside. Historically, colleges have sought out the accreditor they think will give them the most favorable treatment, noted Chad Aldeman, a consultant at Bellwether Education Partners, who worked on the Obama-era teacher regulations.
In the higher education space broadly, “institutions can shop around for the accreditor they want,” Aldeman said. “It’s a messy field.”
Meanwhile, CAEP only last year began requiring all programs to meet its new standards. Of the approximately 50 colleges it’s reviewed, CAEP has revoked accreditation twice and denied it once. That makes CAEP tougher than previous accreditors, said Koch.
AAQEP’s rise has also created waves in the insular teacher-preparation field. At least two individuals who are helping write the new group’s expectations recently sat on CAEP’s accreditation council and had to resign based on conflict-of-interest rules.
And LaCelle-Peterson and his two colleagues at AAQEP all left the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the field’s main membership association, this summer. AACTE said it could not comment on personnel matters. But that group, under its former leader, Sharon P. Robinson, strongly favored a single accreditor.
AACTE also said it would not offer comments on the new group until after a board of directors meeting later this month.
Though AAQEP is still finalizing its standards and processes, one detail is not in question: its fees. The group’s website lists its services and rates for accreditation, which are generally comparable to CAEP’s.
The group is seeking recognition from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which approves accrediting agencies, as well as from the U.S. Department of Education. (CAEP is recognized by the former but not the latter.)
A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2017 edition of Education Week as New Group Vies to Put Approval Stamp on Ed. Schools