Panel Considers Proposals to Ensure Quality of Teacher-Training Programs

February 27, 2012

The Education Department, in an effort to weed out weak teacher-preparation programs, is proposing to tighten eligibility for federal Teach Grants, holding institutions more accountable for their graduates' employment outcomes and classroom performance.

Under federal law, only programs deemed "high quality" by their state can award Teach Grants of up to $4,000 a year to students who plan to work in "high need" areas. But the department has not defined "high quality," leaving it up to states to set their own standards for judging programs.

The department's plan, released on Monday, would set criteria for states to follow in evaluating institutions, requiring them to consider job-placement and job-retention rates, and how well their graduates' future students perform on state assessments and other measures of learning.

The new rules, which are being debated by a panel of negotiators this week, also specify that "highly qualified" programs must be accredited by a specialized teaching accrediting agency.

The rules would require states to make "meaningful differentiations" among teacher-education programs—including those not participating in the Teach Grant program—and report their ratings annually, as part of their "report card" to the department.

While the department's proposal would give states some discretion on how to categorize programs, it would require at least four performance levels: "low-performing," "at risk," "satisfactory," and "high quality." States would be required to provide "technical assistance" to weaker programs, though they would not be forced to withdraw their approval or financial support from the lowest-performing programs.

At a meeting of the negotiators Monday, most participants praised the department's effort to evaluate programs based on outcomes, such as job-placement rates and student learning, rather than inputs, such as their students' test scores and grade-point averages.

But the panel split over whether the department had gone too far, or not far enough, with its proposal. While some negotiators argued that the department's criteria for identifying highly qualified programs were too prescriptive, others urged it to set parameters for measuring students' academic-content knowledge and teaching skills as well. Some said the criteria were sound, but worried that some states would set their standards so low that no programs would be deemed low-performing.

(That concern is not entirely unfounded: In the most recent year for which data are available, states identified only 37 low-performing programs at the over 1,400 institutions that prepare teachers, and 39 states identified no low-performing programs at all. Two-thirds of the programs labeled at-risk or low-performing continue to receive funds under the Teach Grant program, according to the department).

Meanwhile, a few panelists said they were uncomfortable with the proposal to require programs to have specialized accreditation, and at least one warned that states don't have the money to cover the additional reporting costs.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been critical of teachers' colleges, accusing many of them of doing a "mediocre" job of preparing graduates for "the realities of the 21st-century classroom." Last fall, he released a plan to remake teacher-preparation programs that included many of the ideas in the proposed rules.

Negotiations over the rules will continue on Tuesday and Wednesday.