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How Would the GREAT Act Revamp Teacher and Leader Preparation?

Published:  July 4, 2011
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Photo courtesy of Flickr user sean dreilinger.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), along with several co-sponsors, has introduced a new bill that would establish charter-school-like teacher and principal preparation programs, termed “Preparation Academies.” The proposed legislation aims to better prepare students for college and careers by increasing the number of effective teachers and principals who serve high-needs schools and hard-to-staff subjects like science and math.

Early education stakeholders should watch the bill closely because while it doesn’t delineate what grade levels would be included, it is safe to say that it would include academies that prepare K-3 teachers and elementary school principals.  What is unclear is whether the bill could also apply to the training of pre-k teachers.

The bill is called the “Growing Education Achievement Training Academies for Teachers and Principals” Act or GREAT Teachers and Principals Act. It would require the academies to employ a rigorous admissions process, provide teacher candidates with high levels of “clinical preparation” (lots of experience in the classroom) and show proof of candidates’ abilities to improve student achievement before they graduate.

These are just the kinds of teacher preparation issues we raised in our latest policy paper: “Getting in Sync: Revamping Licensing and Preparation for Teachers in Pre-K, Kindergarten and the Early Grades.” We pointed out that most preparation programs, especially those at institutions of higher education, have minimal admission requirements and that much of what prospective teachers learn in courses is disconnected from classroom practice. We made several recommendations for colleges of education and states on how to improve teacher preparation. One recommendation, for example, called for more practical classroom experiences, and another suggested opening more pathways for alternative certification models with emphases on early childhood.

The GREAT Act introduces a new model for teacher and leader preparation: charter preparation academies. Just like charter schools, the proposed academies would be free from regulations such as requirements on courses or credit hours in exchange for a higher degree of accountability, i.e. if the academy does not produce principals and teachers who are able to improve student achievement in high-needs schools, it would not be approved to continue.

The GREAT Act authorizes the Secretary of Education to make grants to states that want to innovate teacher and principal preparation. And it calls on states to designate authorizers that would be responsible for approving and monitoring the academies and provide subgrants to the approved preparation academies. As with the authorizers’ role for charter schools, if an academy failed to produce the minimum number (or percent) of effective teachers or principals as specified in the charter, then the body would not renew an academy’s charter. According to the bill, authorizers could be non-profit organizations, state educational agencies, or another public entity. Authorizers could also be a consortium of entities.

Several organizations have co-signed a letter of support for this legislation—none of which are big surprises considering the bill. The list includes Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools and the New Teacher Project as well as several charter school networks including the Knowledge is Power Program, Success Charter Network and Uncommon Schools, and residency models such as Urban Teacher Residency United and Boston Teacher Residency.

Missing from the list of supporters, though, are the national teachers unions, (the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers), national accreditation bodies, and the organization that represents education schools, the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE).

On the same day as the introduction of this bill, the AACTE held a briefing where they discussed the importance of clinical preparation. The AACTE’s vision for the future of practical experiences for teachers in training shares one similarity with what is called for in the GREAT Act: more clinical practice.

The ideas diverge, however, when it comes to the kinds of organizations that should deliver the preparation.

The bill is intriguing, but it raises loads of questions.

How would prospective teachers and principals demonstrate their ability to improve student achievement? There’s not yet an established way to do this for reliably for teachers of record or acting principals, much less for those training to fill those roles. How would academies select candidates? Research shows a strong correlation between teachers’ verbal ability and student achievement but there is no definitive answer on how to determine who will be the best teachers or principals, especially of high-needs children.

Would state authorizers be held accountable, and by whom? In the public charter school world, the quality of authorizers is a mixed bag. Some are highly attentive to needs of its schools and do not have qualms about closing low-performing charter schools. On the flipside, many are softer on these issues. What can be done to avoid this? And what about finding highly effective mentor teachers? This is something education schools struggle with consistently.

Another concern is around the flexibility the bill would allow when it comes to required coursework. We agree that flexibility would allow preparation academies to tailor courses to better meet the needs of the specific communities they serve. But there is essential content that teachers need to know. For example, teachers of children in the early grades must have a deep understanding of how children grasp new concepts and how to develop their reading and writing abilities. Like all teachers, they must know how to understand, analyze and use data, know how to engage and interact with families, and have a deep understanding of the content areas such as math and science.

The GREAT Act would still require teacher candidates to pass state-approved content area examinations, but, based on our knowledge, there has been little research conducted on whether these exams are good predictors that teachers have learned and understand what they need to be effective for the full span of grades their license allows. (By the way, states set their own minimum passing scores.)

Co-sponsors of the bill include Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Mark Kirk,(R-IL), and Mary Landrieu, (D-LA).

The GREAT Act does not authorize a specific funding amount. If the bill moves forward, Congress would set the funding level through the appropriations process. The proposed legislation could serve as standalone grant program for states or it could also find its way into Title II of a new ESEA. (Title II addresses preparing, training, and recruiting high quality teachers and principals.)

There is no doubt that teacher and principal preparation, pre-k up through high school, needs to be revamped. We would have liked to see pre-k specifically mentioned in the bill. While the GREAT Teachers and Principals Act comes with some risks, it introduces a new way of thinking about preparation that could provide more options for prospective teachers and leaders as well as stir education schools to rethink their programs.

For more on the GREAT Act, read the Ed Week articles here and here.

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