Teacher colleges and their accreditors pushed back against a Department of Education plan to tighten eligibility for federal Teach Grants this week, winning concessions on a proposed rule that could have ended aid to hundreds of colleges and set a precedent for other federal programs.
Under the department's original proposal, states would have been required to sort teacher-education programs into four categories—"low-performing," "at risk," "satisfactory," and "high quality"—based on their graduates' job-placement and retention rates, the academic "growth" of graduates' future students, and customer-satisfaction surveys. Only programs that received the highest ranking and were approved by a specialized accreditor would have been eligible to award the grants, which provide up to $4,000 a year to students who agree to work in "high-need areas."
Sophia McArdle, the department's representative on a panel that is negotiating the teacher-training rules, said the agency's goal was to set a "minimum bar" for Teach Grant eligibility. (While federal law limits Teach Grants to "high quality" programs, it doesn't define the term. In the past, department officials have claimed that the grants go to too many "mediocre" programs.)
But negotiators said the bar was being set too high, and would deny aid to all but "the crème de la crème," as one panel member put it. They maintained that it was unfair to exclude the hundreds of programs that lack specialized accreditation, or the potentially hundreds more that might fall under the new "satisfactory" category. They argued that the grants should go to students attending programs deemed "effective" or higher, regardless of their accreditation status, and the department agreed.
Under the compromise language, programs lacking specialized accreditation would be judged based on whether they provided graduates with "content and pedagogical knowledge" and "quality clinical preparation" and had "performance based" exit requirements.
Even more significantly, panelists succeeded in striking any reference to "high quality" from the state rating system, replacing it with "exceptional." That seemingly semantic change ensured that the "high quality" definition wouldn't outlive Teach Grants, and be used to limit aid under other federal programs. President Obama has proposed ending the Teach Grant program and replacing it with a "Presidential Teaching Fellows" program that would provide scholarships to high-achieving students.
Even with the changes, the new rules still represent a significant expansion of the federal involvement in teacher-training programs. Until now, the government has largely stayed out of teacher prep, leaving it to states to set their own standards for judging and penalizing programs. The proposed rules, with their outcome standards and survey requirements, mark a "much more rigorous and intrusive federal role," said Jane West, senior vice president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
Ms. West said her association had surveyed its members and found that only 13 percent had access to the sort of outcomes data that the department is seeking. She said she worried that gathering it and responding to the satisfaction surveys could be expensive for colleges and states.
"The challenge is what is the appropriate federal role and what is the appropriate state role, and that's what people are wrestling with," she said.
The panel meets for a third, and final, session in early April. If members can reach consensus on a package of rules by the end of that meeting, the department will probably issue the package as is; if they cannot, the department will be free to make whatever changes to the rules it wants.