Teacher education programs have endured their share of bad press in recent years, from lawmakers' public rebukes to a stalled Higher Education Act renewal that is set to address accountability by mandating increased reporting from education schools. A lively debate earlier this month before an Education Department accreditation panel included accusations from speakers that some programs are promoting a political agenda.
There were no pointed comments made Thursday, as a panel of teachers and administrators told Congressional aides how federal grants made possible by Title II of the Higher Education Act have helped fund teacher preparation programs, and in turn, they say, improve student performance.
The event, sponsored by the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education, was a response to increased interest by members of Congress in learning details about federally funded Teacher Quality Enhancement Grants Program for States and Partnerships, said Jane E. West, vice president of government relations with AACTE.
Money provided by the federal government -- either in the form of state grants, partnership grants or teacher recruitment grants -- help fund professional development programs and promote partnerships between education schools, local schools districts and state education agencies.
“I wanted to hear on-the-ground reports,” said J.D. LaRock, senior education adviser for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). “In the field of training educators, we are tackling common problems but there isn't a common solution."
A No Child Left Behind Act mandate to train “highly qualified” teachers is part of what prompted the recent push for federally supported teacher education programs. According to AACTE figures, about $60 million was set aside in the 2006 budget for Teacher Quality Enhancement Grants.
"The investment is small, but it leverages a lot," West said. "A lot of policy makers think schools of education are completely separate from K-12, and that simply isn't the case."
That was one of many self-described myths about teacher education that speakers at the briefing attempted to dispel. Patricia Tate, executive director of curriculum and instruction for the Osborn School District, in Phoenix, said some doubt a university's ability -- or motivation -- to train teachers, and others say it's too difficult to measure the effectiveness of teacher training programs.
Tate said it is important for K-12 educators to seek out partnerships with colleges that have education schools because the colleges provide key financial support and institutional wisdom. “It isn’t an ivory tower,” she said. “There's a person there who will listen, and it's not always the dean.”
A principal in Tate’s district made contact with an official at Arizona State, which has an education school. In 1999, Arizona State was awarded a five-year, $13.8 million grant to improve teacher preparation in science and math fields, which led to a formation of a special teacher training program meant to send qualified teachers to the district.
Tate said measuring the success of the program is simple. Since the first crop of teachers entered the school, math and science scores among seventh and eighth graders have risen steadily. The district also saw a sharp increase in its teacher retention rate, she said.
"As a high-poverty district, recruiting teachers of a high quality remains our biggest challenge," Tate said. “The improvement on both fronts is directly related to the long-term partnership with the college of education at Arizona State.”
Along with testimonials provided by the educators and administrators, AACTE on Thursday released a 72-page report, called “Teacher Education Reform: The Impact of Federal Investments,” profiling 54 Teacher Quality Enhancement Grants. The publication is filled with examples of federally funded programs that foster collaboration between colleges and school districts, and help train teachers.
Travis Holden, a Los Angeles math teacher who left the private sector to take a job with an inner-city high school, described the Transition-to-Teaching program at California State University at Dominguez Hills. The three-year accreditation program recruits math and science teachers, and gives them access to education professors and a group of future teachers who learn together.
"There were times when I thought I might quit,” Holden said. "I was floundering, not sure what to do if the lesson plan didn't work out. The program gave me a group of peers and teachers."
Virginia Pilato, director of certification and accreditation for the Maryland State Department of Education, explained that more than $6 million in federal funds awarded in 1999 allowed her state to go from 29 professional development school programs that year to 324 programs in 2005.
The Maryland Education Department distributed most of the money to colleges and universities through a competitive grant process. The funding allowed the state to complete a project known as “The Redesign of Teacher Education in Maryland,” which includes a yearlong internship requirement that wasn’t previously mandatory.
Sharon Robinson, president of AACTE, said it’s important for lawmakers to hear about teacher education program that produce results. “In those cases, Congress is receptive,” she said.