• October 24, 2014

Education Dept.'s Reform Plan for Teacher Training Gets Mixed Reviews

Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, laid out measures on Friday that would change how teachers' colleges are evaluated and supported, but the plan has some sticking points for teachers' colleges and teachers' unions.

At a forum here hosted by Education Sector, a nonpartisan research group, Mr. Duncan said that the American teacher-preparation system was a mixed bag of high- and low-quality colleges, and that 62 percent of new teachers said they were unprepared to begin teaching after graduating from those programs. One problem, he said, is that colleges are not held accountable for their students' teaching quality after graduation—measured by the performance of their graduates' elementary- and secondary-school students on standardized tests.

"It's stunning to me that, for decades, teacher-preparation programs have had virtually no feedback loop to identify where their programs prepare students well for the classroom and where they need to improve," Mr. Duncan said. "Our teacher-preparation programs have operated largely in the dark without access to meaningful data that tells them how effective their graduates are in the classroom."

The Education Department's plan, described in a report released on Friday, rests on slashing the number of items teachers' colleges would be required to report on a federal survey—currently 440 fields—and instead requiring them to report on the performance, job placement, and retention rates of their graduates' students.

That means following the example of Louisiana and Tennessee, two states that now have the data to see how well teachers from preparation programs perform. In Tennessee, the leading teachers' colleges produce teachers who are two or three times as likely to reach the top quintile in a given subject based on an assessment of test-score gains made by their students, and the worst colleges have graduates who are two or three times as likely to fall into the lowest quintiles, says the report, "Our Future, Our Teacher: The Obama Administration's Plan for Teacher Education Reform and Improvement."

A 'Foot on the Accelerator'

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a written statement that the teachers' union was surprised that the department wanted to judge preparation programs with students' scores on standardized tests—a measure the tests were never designed for. Further, the use of standardized testing is under scrutiny from a number of sources, but the department "appears to be putting its foot on the accelerator by calling for yet another use for the tests," Ms. Weingarten said.

"The challenges we face today to improve teacher quality require a comprehensive approach," she said. "Revamping teacher-preparation programs is one part of a solution that also must include high-quality instruction for new teachers, as well as mentoring and professional-development programs that expose beginning educators to the best classroom models and the most skillful practitioners."

The Education Department's plan also would shift funds from the $110-million Teach Grant program—which disbursed grants to 37,000 students at teachers' colleges last year—to a proposed $185-million Presidential Teaching Fellows program that would provide scholarships of up to $10,000 to high-achieving students in their last year of study at high-performing teachers' colleges.

Recipients of the scholarships would teach for three years in high-need schools after graduation.

The plan would essentially eliminate the Teach Grant program in its current form, and aid would go only to states that commit to ensuring high standards for teacher training and licensure. Part of the money from the fellowship program would pay for upgraded licensure and certification standards in the states, according to the department.

Hurting or Helping

Sharon P. Robinson, president and chief executive of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said in a written statement that the Teach Grant program had helped hundreds of students since 2008, and should not be folded into the Teaching Fellows program. Ms. Robinson acknowledged that the grant program could use some changes—such as prohibiting low-performing students from receiving the grants—but she said eliminating it would hurt people studying to be teachers and their future students.

The AFT's Ms. Weingarten agreed. "Rewarding a few deserving candidates is a fine idea, but this is the time to address the larger structural issues confronting teacher education today," she said. The union president said that, nationwide, schools lose half of their teachers in the first five years of teaching, and that the Education Department should focus on improving the entire cadre of students at teachers' colleges, rather than setting up a competition that would support just high-achieving students.

However, other education leaders expressed their support for the department's plan.

It seems to be "a strong combination," Arthur E. Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, said in an e-mail. The foundation has offered a state-based teaching fellowship that measures learning outcomes in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. The group's experience shows, he wrote, that "high-ability people" can be attracted to teach science, technology, engineering and math, and that universities "have the capacity to transform their teacher-education programs." Mr. Levine is a former president of Teachers College at Columbia University.

Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan's School of Education, said in a written statement that creating performance standards for teacher-preparation programs would be a vital improvement to how the system works. "This teacher-education plan takes an important stand—it's the outcomes of teacher preparation that matter most," Ms. Ball said.

Under the plan announced on Friday, the department would also make a $40-million budget request for teacher-preparation programs that serve mostly minority students. "There's a growing imbalance between what our students look like and what our teachers look like," Mr. Duncan said.

Ms. Robinson, president of the teacher-colleges group, said she fully supported the department's effort to diversify the teaching work force.

The Education Department will work with Congress to try to obtain funds to carry out the plan and with teachers' colleges on the collection of data about the effectiveness of their graduates.

Brenda Medina contributed to this article.

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