Pity the lowly education major. A classmate gets into medical or law school and there are high fives all around. But if he or she announces plans to be a teacher, there are … crickets.
And why not? For more than half a century, this country’s colleges of education have been mired in the backwater of our national higher-education system. Policy makers pillory them for failing to prepare good teachers; faculty in more prestigious academic departments look down on the research they produce. Professors responsible for preparing future teachers feel exhausted, beleaguered and disrespected. So do teachers in the K-12 system. These days, the whole profession feels under attack.
So goes the stereotype, anyway. And while reality may be a little more nuanced, it’s still true that the accumulated weight of relentless criticism has taken its toll. But what if we can find a way out of this mess? What if colleges of education could shed their lowly status, rise up to become the vanguard of a new era in higher education and restore prestige to what was once (and still is, in some countries) an honored profession?
It could happen -- and it was in pursuit of this goal that a group of college of education deans recently banded together to form a new organization, called (appropriately enough) Deans for Impact. In an era when many classroom teachers have rebelled at data-driven measures of their performance, these deans want to use data to enhance performance and to be held responsible for improving outcomes for future teachers and students.
That will require some sweeping overhauls. An analysis of the 23 teacher-preparation programs led by members of Deans for Impact revealed that only 26 percent have access to student-achievement data. More than half lack information about whether their graduates have remained in the teaching profession. Where data are being gathered, it’s being done using tools that each institution has built in-house, making it all but impossible to compare data across different colleges of education.
This confusing national patchwork quilt of data can be knit into a coherent whole. But it will require that we remember the central lesson from the No Child Left Behind era: it’s not enough to simply set arbitrary data-driven standards without simultaneously developing a clear framework for how to meet those standards. And it will require two major policy shifts.
First, states should enact new policies to ensure that teacher-training programs can collect timely data on: 1) graduate employment and retention, 2) teacher-evaluation results for program graduates, 3) K-12 student-assessment data, and 4) data from surveys of program graduates and their employers. Used intelligently, these data could provide point us toward the answers to key questions such as: Are teachers prepared at some institutions staying in the profession longer than others? Which programs are effective at preparing teachers of color? And, most importantly, which programs are preparing teachers who can improve student learning from the very first day they start teaching?
Second, states should experiment with new methods of recognizing and supporting teacher-preparation programs that voluntarily embrace data-driven practices and accountability for outcomes. This new process would require programs to identify the specific outcomes they intend to deliver -- for instance, a commitment to prepare a certain number of effective special-education teachers. Institutions that do that would qualify for recognition that would be for teaching-preparation programs what LEED Green Building Certification is for architecture. The Every Student Succeeds Act, the recently signed federal education law that replaces No Child Left Behind, creates a path forward for states to develop such policies if they so choose.
Not everyone in the field of teacher preparation thinks states should go down this route. Indeed, some faculty members have already taken to the op-ed pages to decry these policies as “disturbing” and darkly suggest they would “lower standards.” The wagons have begun to circle.
But the shift toward outcomes-based accountability is already well underway. The only remaining question is whether teacher-preparation programs will have these policies done to them, or whether they will work together with lawmakers and other stakeholders to drive change.
If colleges of education embrace the opportunity to show impact, they are poised to become the most interesting, innovative and outcomes-focused departments on university campuses in this country. Now is the time to emerge from the backwater and lead.
Benjamin Riley is the founder and executive director of Deans for Impact, a national nonprofit organization working to improve teacher preparation in the United States.
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