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Playing Offense, Not Defense

June 16, 2005

Teacher preparation programs have taken a pounding in recent years, from legislators concerned about the dearth of teachers being produced and policy makers who view the programs as outdated and unwilling to change.

In 1998, the last time Congress adopted legislation to extend the Higher Education Act, teachers' colleges (and, in turn, higher education leaders viewed as defending them) were lambasted by Rep. George Miller (D-Cal.), who accused them of turning out poorly prepared instructors. He won passage of new standards and reporting requirements designed to measure, state by state, the quality of teacher training programs.

Seeking to shift from defense to offense, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education played host Wednesday to a briefing on Capitol Hill aimed at "debunking the myths" that teacher training programs are lethargic and  ("We're not grandma's normal school any more," as the group's executive director, Sharon P. Robinson, put it) and at introducing its own draft legislation for the teacher training portion of the Higher Education Act, which Congress is once again preparing to renew. 

Congressional aides noticed and applauded the new approach. "I think they're trying to be more proactive than reactive," said Jane Oates, chief education aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who was one of a handful of House and Senate staff members in the audience. "Usually we don't hear from them until somebody's taken a slash at them, and by then it's often too late."

The teacher educators who spoke at Wednesday's session took pains to say that they believe the movement in recent years to impose tougher standards on teachers and the institutions that produce them has improved both. For instance, Robert Yinger, dean of the education school at Baylor University, described a new effort in which Ohio is setting up a statewide system, involving all 50 Ohio college programs that train teachers, that will link data about teachers and students' academic performance in a way that will give colleges (and policy makers) a much clearer sense of how graduates are performing. 

Going forward, "we are seeking more accountability," not less, said Les Sternberg, dean of the college of education at the University of South Carolina at Columbia and head of AACTE's government relations committee. 

The legislation drafted by the teachers' college group calls for expanding the reporting requirements on teacher training programs, though in contrast to comparable measures introduced by Miller and others, it would require colleges to report only on the success of prospective teachers who finish all of the coursework in their programs, rather than on all students. "Kids drop out for any number of reasons, so having to report on all of them doesn't make sense," said Becky Timmons, director of government relations at the American Council on Education. 

Teacher education officials acknowledge that their institutions aren't producing enough graduates to meet the growing demand for elementary and secondary teachers, and so the AACTE's legislation focuses in large part on "strengthening the capacity of our programs -- the capacity is not what it should be," said Sternberg. But the measure proposes doing that in large part by creating several new grant programs, and in a time of extremely tight federal funds, most of those ideas don't stand a "snowball's chance" of making it, said Oates, the Kennedy aide.

While they focused on their desire to cooperate with those who would seek better performance from teachers' colleges, at least one panelist offered a warning that "can give the impression that we as teacher educators are copping out or don't know what we're doing," said John Webb, director of the teacher preparation program at Princeton University. Webb, who oversees an AACTE program that studies how the "standards" push has affected teachers' colleges, said that many efforts to impose accountability end up "oversimplying" a teaching and learning process that is "messy" and "complex." 

Federal and state officials, Webb said, "must acknowledge the complexity of our endeavor, and take into account the complex and sensitive nature of the teaching and learning process."

 

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