Key White House Nominee Has Background in Teacher-Ed Reform

October 23, 2013

White House officials won't confirm it, but it appears that the Obama administration is poised to name the head of an educational-venture fund as its next top higher-education official.

According to numerous news reports, Ted Mitchell, the head of NewSchools Venture Fund, would replace Martha J. Kanter, a former community-college chancellor who joined the Education Department as under secretary of education four years ago and who announced in August that she was stepping down this fall. Mr. Mitchell could also be appointed to a key post not requiring Senate confirmation. The news was first reported on Tuesday evening by Politico.

Although Mr. Mitchell is a former college president, his recent work has focused on remaking elementary and secondary education through charter schools, teacher training, and new technologies. NewSchools has close ties to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and has received more than $82-million in support from the philanthropy since 2003, including $3.2-million in the 2013 fiscal year to "support the development of new teacher-preparation programs," according to the foundation's grants database.

Like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has accused teachers colleges of doing a "mediocre job" of preparing candidates for the classroom, Mr. Mitchell has "long been skeptical of the usual excuses" offered by the colleges, according to Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. Hess considers Mr. Mitchell "one of the best appointments made by this administration, by far," given his background in higher education and his credibility in the reform community, but said his likely appointment is "bad news for the teacher-ed lobby."

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the chief lobbying organization for teachers colleges, did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment on Mr. Mitchell's appointment.

'A Champion for Rigor'

Through its "Learning to Teach Fund," NewSchools has supported nontraditional training programs like the Relay Graduate School of Education and the Urban Teacher Residency, said Joanne Weiss, a former chief operating officer of NewSchools who recently served as Mr. Duncan's chief of staff.

NewSchools has also been a leader in seeking federal funds for "innovative approaches to teacher prep," said Charles Barone, policy director for Democrats for Education Reform. When the U.S. House of Representatives this year drafted its bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as "No Child Left Behind," NewSchools successfully pushed for the inclusion of a fund that would help start-up companies "working outside the box" in teacher prep, he said.

In an e-mail, Ms. Weiss described Mr. Mitchell as a "creative and strategic policy thinker, with lots of higher-ed experience and a healthy dose of pragmatism." She predicted that he would "stay the course the administration has plotted, making progress on college affordability, quality, and completion."

"In the teacher-ed space, I think he'll be a champion for rigor and for meaningful student-teaching experiences," she wrote, adding that he would seek "to make accreditation a real tool for improvement."

In September the Board of Directors of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation approved a set of new standards that require programs to tighten their admissions criteria and to prove that their graduates are contributing to the academic growth of the students they teach.

Several of the standards mirror proposals that the Obama administration offered during a 2011 rule-making process on teacher-preparation programs. The plan, which failed to get unanimous backing from the negotiators, would have directed states to rate programs based on student-learning outcomes and would have limited eligibility for the federal Teach Grant program to highly rated ones. The Education Department has said it still plans to issue rules governing teacher prep, but is awaiting approval from the Office of Management and Budget.

Shift in Accreditation Standards

James Cibulka, president of the accrediting agency, said in an e-mail that his group "intends to work closely with state and national policy makers, including Ted Mitchell, to advance urgent reforms needed in educator preparation." He noted that NewSchools was represented on the panel that drafted the new standards.

NewSchools played a role in "shifting accreditation from inputs to outcomes to drive continuous improvement and innovation," he wrote.

If appointed by the president, or nominated and confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Mitchell would be the third NewSchools veteran to join the department in recent years. In addition to Ms. Weiss, who joined in 2009 to run the department's signature Race to the Top program, it recently added Jonathan Schorr, of NewSchools' external communications, to its political press shop.

Word of Mr. Mitchell's likely nomination came on the heels of two reports criticizing colleges' teacher-training programs. The first, by the National Council on Teacher Quality and U.S. News & World Report, rated the programs at 1,130 institutions and concluded that three-quarters were "mediocre."

The second, released last month by the Education Trust, urges lawmakers to improve deficient teacher training as part of the coming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, arguing that the programs were leaving educators woefully underprepared for the needs of school districts.

According to a biography on the NewSchools Web site, Mr. Mitchell served as president of the California State Board of Education from 2008 to 2010. Before taking the helm at NewSchools, in 2005, he was president of Occidental College, vice chancellor and dean of the School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, and professor and chair of the department of education at Dartmouth College.