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Going It Alone

April 13, 2012

WASHINGTON -- When the Education Department writes rules later this year that will change how teacher preparation programs become eligible for students to receive some forms of federal financial aid, it will tackle the task on its own.

A federal panel charged with recommending how best to overhaul regulations governing teacher preparation programs acknowledged Thursday afternoon that it would not reach a consensus on a set of proposals, and that the gaps between some negotiators -- and between negotiators and the Education Department -- remained too wide on too many issues.

At the heart of the disagreement was what role, if any, evaluations of teachers based on their students’ test scores should play when judging teacher preparation programs and, in the case of programs at colleges and universities, determining eligibility for some forms of financial aid. The failure to agree on new rules means that Education Department officials are free to write their own language, although they will be doing so after hearing strong objections from many negotiators to the federal proposals.

“It’s sad for us to end without consensus, but I understand the basis for it,” said Segun Eubanks, director of the Teacher Quality Department at the National Education Association. “I think as a result we still may pull out some very good language and some very good policy, which I think is in the best interest of everybody.”

In some ways, the disagreement was foreseeable. The negotiated rule making panel included representatives from all sectors of teacher education, including public and private nonprofit colleges, for-profit institutions, and alternative paths to certification like Teach for America. While participants said they had made progress on many issues, by the time the final scheduled meeting ended last week, some of the biggest questions hadn’t been discussed, and an additional meeting was scheduled by teleconference Thursday for one last attempt to reach consensus.

Especially contentious were proposals to evaluate teacher education programs based in part on their graduates’ job placement rates, employers’ satisfaction with graduates they hired, and students’ performance on standardized tests.

The Education Department representatives pushed strongly to include “value added scores,” which attempt to evaluate students’ academic progress by excluding other factors -- like demographics and poverty -- that are known to have an effect on test scores. Such scores have been controversial in school districts around the country, especially when released to the public with teachers’ names attached.

Opponents of using the scores to evaluate teacher preparation programs argued that they have little scientific basis. Proponents, including the Education Department representatives, countered that since teachers are increasingly evaluated based on such scores, the programs that prepare them should be, too.

A proposal to re-evaluate the policy after five years was hailed as a possible compromise, but negotiators said they were concerned that programs could still lose financial aid based on value-added scores in the meantime.

What the final rules will look like is unclear. The panel did appear to agree on some issues in previous meetings, including classifying teacher preparation programs as “low performing,” “at risk,” “satisfactory” and “exceptional,” making only those in the two highest categories eligible to receive aid. And the department’s strong support for including employment outcomes and value added scores seems to indicate that they too will be included in the final rule, which is expected by Nov. 1.

Both developments -- tying a type of federal financial aid to markers of quality rather than student need, and using student outcomes and graduates’ placement rates to evaluate institutions -- were worrisome to higher education lobbyists and others who observed the panel’s debates.

“Given the subject material, I think we’re just going to have to see what their language is,” said Cynthia A. Littlefield, director of federal relations for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. The proposals introduced ideas that are certain to be brought up in coming years, when Congress begins work on the Higher Education Act, she said.

Reauthorization is where many of the proposals discussed at the rule making sessions belong, said Jane West, senior vice president with the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

“The process did not allow for the sort of deliberation that is necessary in considering complex and ground breaking policy,” West said in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “This sort of deliberation belongs in Congress, where all stakeholders weigh in and there is time for analysis and broad dialogue.”

Several deans of colleges of education offered analyses of the panel’s work in letters last week. More are expected to do so during the public comment period after the department issues a notice of proposed rule making on the new regulations.

Members of the panel as well as representatives of associations said they hoped those proposed rules would take the negotiators’ areas of agreement -- as well as their ultimate disagreement -- into account.

“I think they really brought a lot to the table, and I think they really showed that there is a lot going on in teacher preparation in terms of reform,” said Stephanie Giesecke, director for budget and appropriations at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, of the negotiators representing higher education. “I hope the department takes that into consideration when they put the [notice of proposed rule making] out and that the negotiators’ work isn’t just thrown away.”

 

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