Every state is responsible for approving the teacher preparation programs that produce soon-to-be teachers. Under the Higher Education Act, the federal government requires every state to identify low-performing preparation programs. More than half of the states, however, have never named a single low-performing program. With more than 1,400 colleges of education, each housing multiple teacher preparation programs, how can this be?
(There have been several recent calls for the improvement of teacher preparation programs. Read Early Ed Watch’s posts on other reports here, here, and here.)
This is one of the troublesome points raised by a recent Education Sector policy brief: A Measured Approach to Improving Teacher Preparation, co-authored by Chad Alderman, Kevin Carey, Erin Dillon, Ben Miller and Elena Silva. What is worse is in some of the states that have identified programs as at-risk, that in and of itself is about the only action taken. Authors use Union College in Kentucky as one example of the problem, reporting that the school has been identified as low-performing or at-risk for the past six years. Even so, year after year the school continues to receive funding from the state and graduate students who are able to obtain teaching jobs in Kentucky schools.
Between 2001 and 2009, only three states identified at least 20 teacher preparation programs as low-performing: New York named 48, Ohio named 31 and Kansas named 20. States such as Minnesota, Oregon, Arizona, and Virginia – along with many more – identified none.
This practice is bad for prospective teachers and worse for the students they will teach. The problem actually goes deeper than simply failing to close or force programs to improve. In many states, approved status is not all that difficult to obtain in the first place. According to Education Sector, in the past some states simply rated programs on the number of students accepted into programs passed an entrance test. Other states based ratings on the number of students who passed licensure exams. Neither are good measures.
The authors assert that how well new teachers perform in the classroom is the missing ingredient from state rating programs. At the same time, the authors acknowledge that the ability to measure teacher effectiveness in the classroom is limited. And current efforts to do so have been highly contentious. This of course, makes it difficult to base judgment of teacher preparation programs on their student’s effectiveness in the classroom. But this doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
Education Sector points to efforts in Louisiana as a pioneer state. Its Teacher Preparation Value-Added Model links statewide student achievement data to 22 public and private university-based teacher preparation programs as well as to The New Teacher Project and the Louisiana Resources Center for Educators (two alternative preparation programs). After five years of building a data system that can capture these data, authors say that Louisiana is on its way to distinguishing between programs that produce highly effective teachers and those that do not.
Education Sector points to Race to the Top as a catalyst for moving other states in this direction too. Thirty-one states included connecting student learning outcomes to teacher preparation programs in their applications. But not every state received funding, and even those that did may face challenges in realizing their proposed plans.
According to Education Sector, for the most part, the federal government has had minimal success in improving teacher preparation even with various requirements and fines already in place. Authors boldly call for a new approach: Instead of continuing down the path of attempting to force states into compliance, they say the federal government should establish additional competitive grants that are awarded to states that build data systems capable of tying teacher effectiveness and teacher preparation programs and use those data to improve programs that underperform.
The authors also lay out a three-part strategy for how the federal government should implement this new approach:
Evaluate state capacity to measure and use outcomes of teacher preparation programs. Authors make known that states vary greatly in their ability to collect, track, and analyze this information. (We wrote about this issue in our report, Many Missing Pieces.)
Create new incentives for states and programs to improve teacher preparation. The authors propose two grant programs: One that would provide funding to states and programs that propose innovative ideas for large-scale reform. The second would award grants to preparation programs that have been identified as low-performing, but that are committed to making changes.
- Simplify and strengthen teacher-focused financial aid programs. Currently there are two main federal financial aid programs for teachers: TEACH Grants and teacher loan forgiveness. Education Sector calls for Congress to eliminate Teach Grants and to redirect those funds to an enhanced teacher loan forgiveness program set up as a matching program with existing state forgiveness programs and be based on areas of need specific to each state. In order to participate in the federal matching program, authors suggest that states would have to beef up their process for monitoring teacher preparation programs. Additionally, they recommend that the match be used for only the top 15 percent of students based on measures of academic performance (such as college GPA, test scores, etc) and the quality of their preparation. Recognizing that these measures aren’t necessarily the best, Education Sector notes that as teacher evaluation systems improve, requirements should be replaced with more accurate instruments of teacher effectiveness. Authors also recommend that the amount be pro-rated so that students are rewarded each year they teach.
Congress would not necessarily need to find new funding to make these changes. This is especially important because of the current federal budget situation. Education Sector recommends looking at the 23 programs in the Department of Education that deal with teacher preparation or professional development, especially those that have the primary purpose of preparing teachers through higher education, and determining how they could be used to create a more streamlined approach to improving teacher preparation.
Early Ed Watch agrees there is an urgent need to improve teacher preparation. In our own independent research, we’ve found preparation programs that train teachers for placement in the early grades to be lacking coursework in the developmental sciences, family and community engagement, and content. Clinical experiences are too few and opportunities to teach students are separate from pedagogy and content coursework. And, as Education Sector mentions, the majority of preparation programs, we have looked at have few requirements for admission. States play a major role in setting expectations for teacher preparation programs. We agree that to foster higher expectations, the federal government should direct funds to states and programs that have innovative, successful approaches, are committed to improving quality and are able to retain effective teachers. This is an important step toward improving students’ learning outcomes.
Stay tuned for our own report on teacher preparation for the early grades, which we aim to release in the next couple of months.