WASHINGTON -- Whether a federal panel will be able to agree on recommendations for an overhaul of rules related to teacher preparation programs is still uncertain. But at the end of the panel’s last full day of negotiations Wednesday, one thing was clear: many in higher education are alarmed by the path the committee is taking.
The rule-making panel is part of a broader effort by the Obama administration  to change how the nation’s teachers are prepared. The panel has been controversial in itself, with some negotiators challenging the Education Department’s authority to determine some of the criteria under debate .
The negotiators, including representatives from schools of education, alternative routes to teaching such as Teach for America, teachers’ unions and other stakeholders, are considering several proposals that would push teacher education programs to focus on how their graduates eventually perform in the classroom (and how those new teachers’ students do on standardized tests and other measures of student learning).
Two measures especially have drawn concern from negotiators, deans of schools of education and other constituents: value-added scores, which attempt to measure how much teachers affect student learning, and a proposal to evaluate preparation programs based on their job placement rates and retention rates for new teachers.
The new rules are still up for debate, and by the end of the day Wednesday, negotiators were far from agreement. But they appear poised to require states to classify teacher preparation programs, including both traditional and alternative routes to teacher certification, as either “exceptional” (or “high quality”), “effective,” “at risk” or “low performing.” Students in "at risk” and “low performing” programs would not be eligible to receive TEACH Grants, federal grants aimed at attracting more teachers to high-need areas.
But what criteria states would use to classify programs has been a central focus of the debate. In two separate letters to the panel, deans of schools of education at major research universities criticized the use of value-added scores, which they said are useful in some contexts but have practical difficulties and can lead to pressure on teachers to teach to the test or game the system.
At the negotiating table, the prospect of evaluating schools of education based on employment outcomes led to more discussion, exposing sharp differences between negotiators from colleges and those from alternative programs such as Teach for America.
Evaluating colleges on students’ job prospects has been a consistent theme for the Obama administration since the introduction of the “gainful employment” regulations, which judge vocational programs, largely at for-profit colleges, based on student loan repayment rates and graduates' incomes. More recently, the administration announced its intent to use some campus-based financial aid programs to reward colleges that provide “good value”  (and punish those who do not), broadly defining value as getting a job and paying off student loans.
But several negotiators from colleges and universities pushed back against judging teacher preparation programs on placement rates. Budget cuts, student enrollment in local districts and other issues outside the colleges’ control can be the biggest factors in whether students are employed after graduation, they said.
Many graduates find work in other states and might not show up in state measures of placement rates, because no national system exists to track teaching candidates. And some graduates find fulfilling work outside teaching -- a student who originally intended to be a math teacher might instead go into engineering or another mathematics-related field, they argued.
“We’ve provided an opportunity for people to find career enhancement,” said Michael Morehead, dean of the college of education at New Mexico State University, who argued that the placement rate criterion should be dropped.
Negotiators were also troubled by evaluating teacher education programs based on “value added” scores, which attempt to evaluate teachers based on their students’ test scores alone, eliminating factors outside of their control (such as poverty, demographics and class sizes). The scores have been controversial at school districts, which have released them to the public with teachers’ names attached.
“Teacher training programs should not be evaluated on the basis of measures that have not been shown to be meaningful, valid and reliable, particularly when high-stakes decisions will be made based on these measures,” deans of schools of education at the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Michigan, George Washington University, Columbia University, Northwestern University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison wrote in a letter to the negotiating panel .
They said they support the use of performance assessments to evaluate teachers, but cautioned against value-added measures. The deans also questioned whether eligibility for TEACH Grants should be tied to the state ratings, saying the prospect was “troubling for several reasons.”
The negotiators must reach consensus (or not) on the proposed rules by the end of the day today. If consensus fails and the negotiators cannot agree on recommendations to the Education Secretary, the new rules will be up to the department's discretion. Whether that will happen is unclear: after two days, negotiators were only beginning to reach agreement on the definition of terms used in the proposed rules Wednesday night. Much of the agenda remains for today’s meeting.