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WASHINGTON -- The main battleground over the federal role in teaching elementary and secondary students is unfolding in Congress, where attempts to renew the law known as No Child Left Behind have proceeded haltingly. But an important sideshow began unfolding Wednesday in a nondescript federal office building, where a group of school and college officials, teachers' union leaders and school reform advocates are charged with the task of deciding how to judge the quality and success of the academic programs that prepare the nation's teachers.

As befits a federal rule-making panel, some of those questions are technical, dealing with the minutiae of data reporting and grant and loan programs. But others are broader, especially one: What, exactly, is a “high quality" teacher education program?

The question is a difficult one, given both the lack of consensus on how to define teacher quality and the negotiators' varying backgrounds and points of view (around the table are representatives of groups frequently at odds, including nonprofit and for-profit colleges as well as the teachers' unions and Teach for America). Still, the panel’s 18 members and their alternates will attempt to agree on those and other questions related to teacher education this week, in the first of three scheduled negotiated rule making sessions.

The negotiations are intended to recommend new reporting requirements on program quality at both the institutional and state levels, as well as determine the criteria that states should use to assess teacher preparation programs and identify those that are not performing well. Panelists, who represent all sectors of higher education as well as elementary and secondary education and interest groups, will also deal with issues related to TEACH grants, which provide aid to students who plan to become teachers and work in “high need” areas.

At first, it appeared that panelists would tackle the quality issue head-on, with some members calling for it to be moved to the beginning of the rule-making session so that the definition of a “quality program” could inform guidance for reporting and data collection. Instead, the panel decided to deal with the issues in the order suggested by the Education Department, beginning with what data teacher preparation programs should be required to report about the students they enroll.

But although the discussions provided little insight into what the panelists consider marks of quality in teacher preparation, the Obama administration has laid out a clear blueprint of its own. In guidance to the rule-making panel, and in a proposal released in October, the administration has called for replacing or supplementing “input-based data” -- such as incoming students’ ACT scores, or passing rates on statewide assessments -- with “output-based data” on how an institution’s teachers perform in the classroom.

“Strong programs recruit, select, and prepare teachers who have or learn the skills and knowledge they need to be hired into teaching positions, be retained in them, and lead their students to strong learning gains,” the administration wrote in its proposal. “Weak programs set minimal standards for entry and graduation. They produce inadequately trained teachers whose students do not make sufficient academic progress.”

In guidance to the panel's members this week, the Education Department stressed the same issues, saying that states have not “historically held teacher preparation programs to a high standard,” in part because there is no federal definition of a high-quality program. (TEACH Grant funds can go to either traditional certification or alternative certification programs, as long as the program is based at an institution of higher education.)

The definition of a “high-quality program” will determine which institutions are eligible for their students to receive TEACH grants, which currently are awarded at 800 of the 1,400 teacher preparation programs nationwide. The discussion is likely to focus at least in part on clinical preparation, including student teaching, which the administration has stressed as a key part of teacher education and that panelists singled out Wednesday as in need of improvement.

One alternate committee member said he feared the administration's focus will add to a perception that teacher education is generally low-quality. "We really do need to look at other ways of trying to determine the way we provide information about teacher education," said Michael Morehead, dean of the college of education at New Mexico State University. The current system is "becoming outdated," he said, but resisted generalizing about the problems. "I don't disagree that there are challenges, but it's not as bad as you make it sound."

But although the administration’s views are clear, what the panel will suggest remains an open question. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education has put forth five “principles” it hopes will govern the discussion, including that any data used to evaluate teacher education programs should be based on scientific standards, and that the committee should rely on peer-reviewed research. The administration's plan, when released, was praised for its focus on outcomes but criticized as potentially infeasible.

By the end of discussions Wednesday, panelists had not reached a consensus on which, if any, of the more than 400 reporting requirements for teacher education programs should be eliminated. Still, they said they agreed the data should be focused on information that makes a difference in program quality. "We don't want more data that doesn't do anything," said David Steiner, dean of the Hunter College School of Education and until recently the state commissioner of education for New York.

The discussions continue today and Friday and then adjourn until the next rule-making session in February.

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