Fighting the Non-University Master's

August 1, 2011

WASHINGTON -- A Senate bill that would encourage the growth of alternative training programs for teachers and principals, some of which would not be based at colleges or universities but would have the authority to give certificates considered the equivalent of master’s degrees, has come under fire from higher education organizations that argue Congress should focus on higher education institutions in efforts to improve teacher quality.

The bill, S. 1250, the Growing Excellent Achievement Training Academies for Teachers and Principals Act, introduced in June, would give grants to states to set up or authorize “academies” for training teachers and principals. The training programs could be based at colleges or universities, but could also be hosted by other nonprofits, such as Teach for America. The programs would be required to have a “rigorous” selection process, make clinical instruction (such as student teaching) a significant part of the training process, and only issue credentials to would-be teachers who proved they could improve student achievement.

In exchange, the academies would be exempt from restrictions the bill describes as “unnecessary”: teacher and principal academies would not be required to hire faculty with advanced degrees, faculty members would not be expected to conduct research, and the academies would not need to be accredited.

States accepting the grants would agree to treat the teaching credentials from academies as equivalent to at least a master’s degree when hiring and paying teachers, even if the credential isn’t issued through a traditional college. The proposal comes at a time when some prominent critics have questioned the value of master's programs in education.

The bill was introduced on its own in June, but is likely to gain more attention during Congressional debate over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind. The act, which deals with teacher preparation at the college level in addition to its main focus on K-12 education, will probably be overhauled later this year.

In a letter to Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and Senator Michael Enzi, the committee’s ranking member, nine higher education organizations argued that the bill’s approach was unwise.

“While our organizations support the reform of educator preparation programs, we have several concerns about this legislation, and we ask you not to support it,” they wrote in the letter, which was signed by the American Council on Education, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, among others.

Chief among those concerns was the requirement that an alternative credential be accepted as the equivalent to a master’s degree. That would “devalue the M.A. degree and bypass generally accepted academic practices,” the groups wrote, arguing that it also lets the government create an academic credential.

Instead, efforts to change how teachers are trained should be focused on colleges, which train almost 90 percent of new teachers, they wrote, asking Congress to continue funding and expand the Teacher Quality Partnership grants, which reward partnerships between high-need school districts and schools of education.

Those grants are only a few years old, and Congress cut part of their funding in the fiscal year 2011 budget, said Stephanie Giesecke, director of budget and appropriations for NAICU. “We did this. You should give it a chance to show what it can do,” Giesecke said. “It’s only been a couple of years.”

The bill is likely to attract attention going into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization in part because of its sponsors, a bipartisan group of six that includes Senator Lamar Alexander, the former Education Secretary, as well as Senator Michael Bennett, a former school superintendent in Denver.

More than 50 organizations signed a letter of support from the New Schools Venture Fund, a group that raises money for public charter schools. Only a few of those who signed had ties to higher education, including the United Negro College Fund, the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute and the National Center for Urban Education at the University of the District of Columbia, and one education professor each from Harvard and Stanford.

The letter in support praised the bill’s focus on student achievement. “We believe this innovative approach to training the next generation of teachers and principals is absolutely vital to meet the needs of today’s accountability-driven schools and classrooms, where the ultimate measure of success is tied to student achievement,” the groups wrote.

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