WASHINGTON -- If getting into a college's teacher preparation program were as difficult as gaining admission to its law school or medical school, would that college's graduates be more effective teachers?
Many proposals to change elementary and secondary education answer that question in the affirmative, arguing that better students make better teachers. The notion is strewn throughout education reform proposals, from programs like Teach for America that recruit high achievers to the positions of groups like the National Council on Teacher Quality, which argues that at some colleges, it's easier to qualify academically as a teaching candidate than as a Division I athlete.
Increasingly, the Obama administration has thrown its weight behind the idea, most recently in a budget proposal for a $5 billion grant competition to reward states and districts for improving teacher effectiveness in a variety of ways -- including making teacher education programs more selective. But colleges of education fear that the focus on teaching candidates' high school grades and test scores is misplaced and perhaps counterproductive.
The Education Department has not revealed full details of its proposal, known as the RESPECT Program , to encourage merit pay, higher salaries for teachers and an emphasis on classroom effectiveness. But as it has tried to change elementary and secondary education, the Obama administration has repeatedly emphasized the role of teacher preparation programs and raised the question of how to entice students with high grades and test scores into teaching.
Colleges of education have praised the administration for consistently including teacher training in its proposals, but are skeptical of the focus on selectivity. Attracting smart and talented students to teaching is important, they say, but good preparation is more important. They argue that the focus on selectivity could exclude many students, including adult students looking for a career change or students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who might in fact make good teachers.
With the latest proposal, which joins a plan the department laid out in October  as well as a negotiated rulemaking effort to define a "high-quality teacher preparation program,"  the debate is likely to continue.
“The only element of strengthening teacher preparation that I have seen articulated is the notion of selectivity,” said Jane West, senior vice president for policy, programs and professional issues at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. “While I think that’s certainly important, I think there are many other factors we would want to be highlighting.”
Proponents of more selective teacher education programs say that too many require students to meet only minimum standards. About 40 percent of the nation’s teachers come from institutions with median SAT or ACT scores below the national average, according to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System assembled by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a group working with U.S. News and World Report on a controversial effort to rank teacher education programs .
“The way to get better teachers is raise the bar in admission and use academic aptitude,” said Arthur McKee, managing director of teacher preparation studies at the council.
Countries whose education systems are seen as surpassing the United States’ -- including Finland, South Korea and Singapore -- recruit teachers from among top high school graduates, McKee said. Programs like Teach for America have attempted to follow a similar approach, and some research has found that those students are at least as effective in the classroom as other novice teachers and some veterans, although many leave when their two-year commitment ends.
Colleges of education agree that they want to attract well-qualified students -- and many set requirements for students when they declare a major in education. But teacher education programs shouldn’t be judged on their students’ high school credentials, but on how well they prepare the students they admit, they say.
“We’re in education because we believe that education matters, and that people can grow and learn given the right experiences,” said Virginia McLaughlin, dean of the School of Education at the College of William and Mary. Future teachers should be evaluated regularly and judged on their progress, including how well they master both knowledge of the subjects they will teach and the techniques they will later use in the classroom, she said.
At Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, many students would be barred from admission to the teaching program if it set a minimum high school grade-point average at 3.0, the level the National Council on Teacher Quality suggests, said Leontye Lewis, dean of the university’s school of education. More than half of the students at the historically black university are adults looking to change careers and enter teaching, and many didn’t have stellar academic credentials in high school, Lewis said.
Still, the Obama administration’s overall plan to improve teacher education, released in October, praised Fayetteville State for preparing some of the “most effective teachers in North Carolina."
“They have a passion, and now they’re back and they’re doing well,” Lewis said. “High school G.P.A. is a good determining factor for success in college, but it is not a determining factor for effectiveness in the classroom.”
One concern is that emphasizing selectivity will lead to fewer students like Lewis’s, as well as fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds who might not have excelled in high school.
“It’s very important to get minority candidates from and of the neighborhood where they will be serving students,” West said. “They have skills related to cultural knowledge and being of the community that can be significant in how well they work with students.”
But the current pool of teachers is far from diverse -- it's overwhelmingly female and white, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Changing the status quo might not help diversity in the short term, McKee argued, but better teachers will mean that students from all backgrounds will be better-educated and more likely to become teachers in the next generation.
Some teacher education programs, including programs at Rutgers University at New Brunswick and the University of Colorado at Boulder, have successfully attracted top students in science and mathematics to teach in those fields. But replicating their success nationwide could be difficult: teaching is viewed as less prestigious, less lucrative, or both, than many other careers for high-achieving students.
Greater selectivity could help solve that problem, McKee argues. Law and medicine are viewed as prestigious in part because gaining admission to education in those fields is difficult.
“If you ask the general public, they might have a lot of admiration for the difficulty of a teacher’s job, but there’s not a lot of sense that it’s hard to get into,” McKee said. “It’s not prestigious, and part of the reason it’s not prestigious is it’s been perceived that anyone can become a teacher.”
Teacher education programs can’t change the average starting salary after graduation -- about $39,000. But they can help change that perception, he said.
Even selective institutions are influenced by perceptions of teaching as a career, said McLaughlin: William and Mary is a highly selective college whose teacher education students have already passed strict admissions standards. “Our pipelines into our teacher education programs are very much influenced by the status of teaching in the United States right now,” she said. “If we’re serious about producing the best teaching workforce we can, we need to tackle all of those issues and not look for answers like admissions criteria.”
McKee said he does not blame individual colleges for not raising standards on their own, because by doing so they could lose students to other institutions. Statewide efforts -- such as the type Obama’s plan would seek to promote -- are necessary, he said.
But such efforts would mean public institutions produce fewer teachers than they already do, Lewis said, urging the department to hold teacher education programs accountable by measuring what their graduates can do.
“If a program brings in a student with a 2.5 GPA, and that student graduates, goes through the program and graduates as a qualified teacher, that student can go into a classroom and blow the roof off that classroom,” she said.