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New Path for Teacher Ed Reform

October 3, 2011

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration has proposed to transform teacher preparation programs by directing aid to those that graduate the teachers who produce the most successful student outcomes. The plan would significantly reduce the reporting requirements on teacher candidate preparation that states and colleges must meet under federal rules, but would require tracking of how graduates perform in public schools. Those programs found to produce poor teachers, as judged in part by lack of movement on standardized test scores, would have to improve or face possible shutdown.

"Our shared goal is that every teacher should receive the high-quality preparation and support so that every student can have the education they deserve," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at the report's release here on Friday at a forum sponsored by Education Sector. The current system provides no measurement of teacher effectiveness, and thus no guarantee of quality, he said. Despite federal rules requiring states to identify low-performing teacher preparation programs, in the past dozen years, more than half haven't pointed to a single one. "That would be laughable if the results weren't so tragic for our nation's children," Duncan said.

The plan also includes special aid for programs that recruit more diverse candidates who become successful teachers, to address the increasing difference between the proportion of minority students and that of minority teachers.

Measuring teacher performance has been a focus for Duncan, who last year upset many programs by suggesting that master's degrees in education should not automatically merit higher paychecks, saying that money should be redirected to teachers who either prove their ability to perform or work in high-needs areas such as low-income districts. The new federal proposal, which Duncan announced here on Friday, was widely praised for its goal of improving student outcomes. But it also prompted some skepticism from teacher education groups questioning its feasibility.

"This is a good thing, to have the department now become a part of our reform effort in teacher education," said Sharon P. Robinson, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. "We need to be able to discern between programs that get it done and those that don't." But, she added, there are many factors at play when evaluating teacher candidates for licensure, and one should not disregard the importance of measuring inputs -- that is, candidates' quality, skills and abilities when they begin a program -- as well as outcomes.

AACTE is currently working with 21 states to develop a teacher performance assessment to replace the oft-criticized licensure exam, which critics say is too easy and doesn't measure true teacher potential. The exam would be replaced with some sort of assessment, based around professional expectations of what it takes to succeed in the classroom -- skills such as working with children, maintaining a welcoming environment and leading discussions with a point. One of AACTE's goals is to "improve student learning," but the plan makes no mention of test scores.

The Obama administration's focus is on measured results. Over the next several months, the department plans to work with programs to streamline reporting regulations, eliminating many of the 440 data points that institutions and states must report under the Higher Education Act. The aim is to replace the "input-based" data that are poor predictors of program effectiveness with three "outcome-based" measures: the academic progress of the students taught by these newly certified teachers, job placement and retention rates, and surveys of program graduates and their schools' principals.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that given that half of all new teachers quit within the first five years, the plan is off-base in not focusing on better preparation. "We were surprised that a principal recommendation of the report was to judge the effectiveness of a teacher preparation program by, among other things, the test scores of students being taught by its graduates. At the same time that the validity of using standardized tests as the ultimate measure of performance is being widely questioned, the U.S. Department of Education appears to be putting its foot on the accelerator by calling for yet another use for tests — and one for which they were not designed," Weingarten said.

"The report also proposes to expand grants to teaching programs and students. Rewarding a few deserving candidates is a fine idea, but this is the time to address the larger structural issues confronting teacher preparation today... [R]ather than creating a competition that provides resources to some but not others, our educational policies should foster programs that provide all aspiring teachers the preparation they need to succeed in the classroom."

The transition to this system is expected to take several years because, at this point, most states simply don't have the capacity to collect these data. "The good news is, many have already implemented significant components of these proposals. Many already track teacher employment data and link students to their teachers, and teachers to their preparation programs, and others are making substantial progress," a report released by the Education Department says. "Regardless of the form of the final regulations and each state's implementation choices, collection and distribution of outcome-based data can inform better decision-making at all stages of teacher preparation. States can make better decisions about which programs to approve and in which to invest. School districts and principals seeking reliable pools of effective teachers can make better decisions about which programs to partner with and from which to hire. Prospective teachers can make better decisions about which program to attend. And the programs themselves can identify areas for improvement and refine their curriculum."

One state already moving in this direction is Louisiana, where the state education department has developed outcome benchmarks based on eight years of linking students back to their teachers, and teachers back to their programs. The department discovered huge variability not only between programs, but also within them -- meaning some programs do well with graduates in certain areas of study, but not all. Officials have also realized that it can pay off to be more flexible on whom they let into the programs, but more selective on whom they ultimately certify. "There might be -- as crazy and radical as it may sound -- there might be different pathways to success," said George Noell, executive director of strategic research and analysis at the Louisiana Department of Education, at a panel following the report's release.

Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan's School of Education, said Duncan's proposal is a positive step for teacher preparation reform because it puts outcomes and capacities "squarely in the center" of the discussion. But she cautioned that there's still much work to be done, not least of which is coming to a consensus on the core requirements for certification: things like the ability to manage and lead small group work, and recognize that a child's answer may be correct even when it's convoluted.

"The conversation is open," Ball said. "What we need to do is work together to build those assessments because they don't need to vary all over the country. They need to be common."

And in the effort to track how teachers do after they graduate and enter the classroom, it's important not to forget about assessing what the programs themselves provide, said Kate Walsh, president of the National Center on Teacher Quality. "Unfortunately in this country we have a system where almost anyone can get into an education school," Walsh said. "We need to be able to assess why a program isn't producing effective teachers," and help them address the problems -- not just tell them to fix themselves. That's why the programs need common standards to measure themselves against, she said. (NCTQ this year released such a set of standards to measure student teaching programs; they also offer a glimpse into how education programs will fare in the forthcoming U.S. News & World Report rankings, whose controversial methodology was developed by NCTQ.)

The second component of Duncan's plan would direct funding to programs states deem successful.

First, it would use $185 million from President Obama's 2012 fiscal year budget to replace the TEACH Grant Program with the "Presidential Teaching Fellows" program. Under the current program, $110 million in annual grants is divvied up among teacher candidates who intend to teach in high-needs schools and meet certain academic criteria. These funds aren't restricted to those attending programs that are considered successful. "As a result, nearly 80 percent of recipients are expected not to fulfill their teaching service requirement and will have to repay their grant with interest," the Education Department report says. "Further, of the few teacher preparation programs that states currently identify as at-risk or low-performing, two-thirds receive funds under the TEACH grant program."

If the proposal is adopted, after states develop policies to "ensure that teacher certification or licensure is determined on the basis of teacher performance, as measured by a performance-based assessment or demonstrated evidence of effectiveness," they would set "rigorous standards" to identify high- and low-performing programs based in part on the new data collected. If states could not rehabilitate programs that consistently failed to perform adequately on three key outcome-based measures -- student learning growth, job placement and retention, and survey results -- states would have to withdraw approval of these programs. And a new grant program would provide scholarships of up to $10,000 for each student attending a program deemed high-performing, in an effort to draw better candidates to better programs (the students would also be required to teach for at least three years in a high-need school).

In a statement, Robinson lamented the potential loss of the TEACH Grant program, saying it has been a valuable resource for aspiring teachers.

Finally, Duncan's plan would spend $40 million to upgrade and expand programs at minority-serving institutions. "Research indicates that disadvantaged students benefit academically and socially from having teachers with whom they can identify. But such teachers are underrepresented in the workforce," the report says. While 38 percent of students are black or Hispanic, only 14 percent of teachers are. Further, only 2 percent are black men and another 2 percent are Latino men. "Minority-serving institutions, which collectively prepare more than half of all minority teachers, must play a major role in preparing the next generation of effective minority teachers."

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, praised the plan. "Frankly, it's kind of a nice change of tone to talk about building the profession instead of tearing it down," he said. "We need to combine meaningful inputs with meaningful outputs, but don't forget about in the middle.... No students should have a teacher not well-prepared."

 

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