Recent changes in standards for the programs that prepare the nation's teacher work force mark the beginning of a new era in teacher education. If the standards—approved in August by a new national accrediting body—are enforced properly, institutions that have used teacher education as a cash cow to pay for other priorities will no longer be able to do so. Instead, their programs will be judged by the real-world impact of their graduates in the classroom.
The new standards will identify what high-quality programs should look like, force teacher-education programs to be more selective, use assessment of student learning as crucial evidence of teacher performance, and hold alternative providers, such as online programs and Teach for America, to the same high standard as that of campus-based programs.
The reasons for those changes are not hard to understand.
Graduates of teacher-preparation programs are faced with educating an increasingly diverse student population that is being held to increasingly complex standards. As a field, education schools and departments of education grapple with many of the same challenges as higher education writ large, but none more so than variation in the quality of programs that have prompted legitimate concerns about their future.
For too long, teacher preparation was the Wild West of higher education—anything goes, and with no real sheriff to provide order. Accreditation is not required and is pursued by only about half of the institutions that train teachers. Even a few years ago, the idea of a single accrediting body to set rigorous standards and hold providers accountable seemed unthinkable. But by merging the two competing accrediting bodies, the Teacher Education Accreditation Council and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, into one group that has set exemplary standards, there is now a model for what high-quality educator preparation looks like.
In place since July, the new Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation—we are board members, after having served on the commission that set the new standards—has already taken on many of the fundamental challenges of accreditation, dismissing the ghosts of failed process-oriented efforts that enabled providers to produce educators without any direct sense of the impact of their training on instruction and learning.
In developing its standards for accreditation, the new council was careful to include not only representatives of traditional providers, but also the field's critics, higher-education leaders, experts in math and reading, alternative providers, charter-school leaders, state-policy makers, parents, and representatives of advocacy organizations. Despite our diverse viewpoints, we agreed that rigorous standards were necessary to elevate the teaching profession so that it, like other fields that set high expectations for their students, can attract the best and the brightest in order to improve the education of all of the nation's young people.
For institutions, the new standards not only set a floor but also identify an ever-rising ceiling to which preparation programs can aspire. A provost or college president will be able to ask her education dean not just if the program passed muster, but if it is truly excellent. Recognition of exemplary programs will help policy makers and institutional leaders see more clearly what constitutes excellent teacher preparation.
The standards also set a high bar to entry, which brings teaching qualitatively closer to other professions. Higher entry requirements for students by 2020—including a GPA of 3.0 or above and being in the top 33 percent of test-takers—are balanced by other attributes to attract a broad range of prospective educators.
The experience of selective preparation programs has already shown us that, if carefully and thoughtfully planned, we can increase quality and diversity at the same time, and the new standards will help ensure that our educators embody both. The changes will also make teacher education the first group in higher education to require extensive measurement of programs' impact on their graduates—and ultimately, on the students those graduates teach.
The standards call for the use of multiple measures, including value-added assessments (comparing student progress over time) where they are available. We know that such measures are in their infancy and are controversial, and so a guiding principle of our work is to collaborate with states and policy makers to improve the measures' quality, explore better indicators of impact, and to emphasize fewer, but more relevant, sources of data that will help institutions identify areas for improvement, not just meet arbitrary thresholds.
The new council will work with providers to strengthen the collection of the right kinds of evidence and make use of such evidence internally to promote continuous improvement. Because prospective candidates need better information on program quality, the group will require programs to provide better and more comparable performance data and will ensure that they are more forthcoming in providing that information. Institutions will display graduation rates and the numbers of graduates who meet licensing standards and are hired in education over a seven-year cycle.
Along with answering the growing calls for more information to be made available, the council is also encouraging institutions to use such data to compare their programs with those of their peers, identifying strengths and weaknesses for internal improvement. Additionally, a new emphasis on building strong partnerships with schools and districts will ensure that teacher-prep programs stay focused on what matters most—strengthening learning.
The impact of the standards will depend as much on states' willingness to align approval with the new requirements as on what institutions do to improve. Each state grants licenses to teachers and approval to preparation programs to operate in that state. So their adopting the new standards and providing institutions with data on classroom performance of graduates, employment figures, and other outcome-related information will be vital to the overall success of this effort.
We also need new research on what makes teacher education effective, along with significant investment in data systems so that they yield useful information. Ideally, all institutions preparing new teachers will be required to seek accreditation.
We believe these new standards and the organization that will support them offer a road map for institutions to improve themselves as well as the profession they are responsible for shaping.
Rick Ginsberg is dean of education at the University of Kansas. Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and president emeritus of Teachers College of Columbia University.