New Rules Would Judge Teacher-Prep Programs on Job Placements and Student Learning

November 26, 2014

Teacher colleges aren’t feeling very thankful for new rules that could make some of their students ineligible for Teach Grants.

The proposed rules, which the Education Department announced two days before Thanksgiving, would require states to evaluate teacher-training programs based, in part, on how many of their graduates get and keep jobs and how much their graduates’ future students learn. Only programs deemed effective by their states would be eligible to award Teach Grants, which provide students with up to $4,000 a year.

The Obama administration argued that the new rules would ensure that teacher-training programs were preparing educators to succeed on Day 1.

"It has long been clear that, as a nation, we could do a far better job of preparing teachers for the classroom," said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in a written statement. "New teachers want to do a great job for their kids, but often they struggle at the beginning of their careers. … teachers deserve better, and our students do too."

But teacher unions and college lobbyists worry that the rules will punish programs whose graduates are concentrated in high-need schools, where test scores tend to be lower and teacher turnover higher. They warn that the plan could discourage colleges from placing their students in such schools.

"There’s no evidence these regulations will lead to improvement and plenty of reason to believe they will cause harm," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "The very programs preparing diverse teachers for our increasingly diverse classrooms will be penalized."

Deborah Koolbeck, director of government relations at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, argued that it was unfair to pin the full responsibility for retention on colleges when graduates’ decisions about whether to remain on a job often stem from their working conditions.

Once the rule is formally published, on December 3, there will be a 60-day public-comment period. The department expects to make the rule final by next September.

‘Glutting the Market’

Tuesday’s announcement came more than two years after negotiations over new rules for teacher-preparation programs ended at an impasse, with panelists divided over the administration’s plan to tie Teach Grants to employment outcomes and value-added measures, such as test scores.

States already report a range of data on teacher preparation to the federal government, including completion rates and pass rates on licensure examinations. But much of the information centers on inputs such as the qualifications of a program’s students, and few programs are labeled underperforming. In 2012 states deemed only 1 percent of programs (129 programs out of more than 13,000) either "at risk" or "low performing." Thirty-nine states identified no low-performing or at-risk programs at all.

The new rules would shift the focus to outcomes, requiring states to submit new data on job placement, retention, "student growth," and customer satisfaction, and to judge programs on those measures as well. States could choose their own metrics and set their own performance thresholds.

Some current and former educators are welcoming that shift. "Teacher colleges are glutting the market with unemployable elementary teachers and failing to produce desperately needed STEM teachers," said Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, and a longtime critic of education schools.

Mr. Levine, now president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, called the focus on students’ achievement data "excellent," arguing that "the only real measure of teacher effectiveness is student learning."

Even More of a Stretch

But skeptics say the existing "value added" measures are unproven. They cite a recent statement by the American Statistical Association that concluded that "the majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control, such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences."

"There are no state tests that I’m aware of that have been shown to be valid and reliable as a measure of teacher performance," said Donald E. Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University. "They’re all constructed to measure student performance." Extrapolating those tests to measure the programs that educated the teachers is even more of a stretch, he added.

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, the under secretary of education, Ted Mitchell, stressed that the rule would not require states to rate programs based on standardized tests or value-added measures. Rather, he said, the rule would recommend that programs use "multiple measures" of student learning. Still, he said, the department hoped many states would "leverage their investments" in assessments of student growth in their evaluations of teacher programs.

Meanwhile, colleges are concerned that the regulation will require them to track their graduates across states—a potentially costly proposition. They are asking who will pay for the surveys of graduates and school principals that the rule would require.

Under Fire for Years

Teacher-prep programs have been under fire from the administration for years, with Secretary Duncan accusing them of lax standards and a culture of mediocrity.

School leaders have also raised concerns about the programs. In one recent survey, a majority of principals and superintendents said that new teachers were generally unprepared to deal with the realities of a modern classroom.

The rules build on recent reforms in the states as well as in accreditation. Last year the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation approved new standards that require programs to tighten their admissions criteria and prove that their graduates are contributing to the academic growth of the students they teach.

On Tuesday, James Cibulka, the council’s president, told reporters on the Education Department call that "the next challenge is to ensure that various data systems use common measures, allow for benchmarking, afford alignment, and reduce duplicative reporting."

Meanwhile, Ms. Koolbeck, at the teacher-college association, wondered whether the department was using teacher-prep programs as guinea pigs for the president’s planned college-accountability system, which would link some federal aid to colleges’ performance on federal ratings.

"Is this a precursor to what the Department of Education is looking to do with higher-education institutions over all?" she asked. "Are we a test bed for that?"