Panel Debates How to Measure Quality in Teacher Training

January 19, 2012

Three months after the Obama administration unveiled its plan for remaking teacher education, a group of educators, union leaders, accreditors, and Education Department officials are meeting in Washington to craft new rules for the programs.

During two days of debate, panelists here have grappled with how to define and measure "quality" in teacher preparation, and how to identify programs that are falling short. They've debated the degree to which programs should be judged based on the achievement of their graduates' future students, and suggested other ways of evaluating programs, such as surveys of principals and job-placement rates.

Nearly everyone at the table agrees with the administration's assessment that some colleges are failing to prepare teachers for the classroom, but panelists are adamant that programs be judged based on "valid" and "reliable" criteria, and not on "political" measures, as one participant put it. They are equally insistent that states continue to set those criteria, arguing that the department has no authority to dictate how states evaluate programs.

One of the most heated moments came on Thursday afternoon, when the department suggested that it set parameters for measuring academic-content knowledge and teaching skills. Several panelists said the department was overstepping its authority, and the federal representatives recessed for nearly 30 minutes to debate the issue. No resolution was reached.

The negotiations will continue on Friday, with panelists set to consider changes to the Teach Grant program, which provided grants to 37,000 students at teachers' colleges last year. President Obama has proposed shifting funds from the program into a proposed "Presidential Teaching Fellows" program that would provide scholarships to high-achieving students, but such an overhaul would require Congressional approval, and is not part of the discussions taking place this week. Instead, panelists are focusing on the current program's definition of "high quality" teacher preparation.

The secretary of education, Arne Duncan, has been critical of teachers' colleges, accusing many of them of doing a "mediocre" job of preparing teachers for "the realities of the 21st century classroom." In late September, at a forum where he released the administration's reform plan, he said programs should be evaluated less on inputs, such as their students' test scores or grade-point averages, and more on their outcomes.

For example, as part of his plan, Secretary Duncan has suggested that teacher-training programs be held accountable for how well their graduates' elementary- and secondary-school students perform on standardized tests. The idea is controversial, though many panelists said they would support it, provided it wasn't the only outcome measure.

Mr. Duncan also proposed slashing a number of items that colleges and states must complete on the annual federal survey of teacher-preparation programs, to alleviate the reporting burden. Negotiators spent several hours this week debating which items to add or subtract, but reached no conclusions.

Panelists will meet two more times—in February and April—before voting on a final package of rules.