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Hearing Weighs How Congress Should Improve Teacher Preparation

There's a dearth of data out there on whether colleges of education are actually churning out graduates that are ready for the challenges of the classroom, lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle acknowledged at a Senate education committee hearing Tuesday on teacher preparation.

At the same time, the federal government has a long list of reporting requirements for schools of education—many of which, like whether or not students are exposed to the Myers-Briggs personality test, may not have much bearing on whether or not new teachers are really ready for prime time.

That paradox is something Congress will explore at it seeks to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which governs teacher preparation, as well as student financial aid, and college preparatory programs.

One of the big questions facing lawmakers: Should the federal government call for colleges of education to track their graduates into the classroom? And, if so, what exactly should that look like? 

Already, states are required to identify teacher prep programs that aren't up to snuff and help them improve. But states aren't exactly knocking themselves out to fulfill that requirement, noted Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, at Tuesday's hearing. As of 2013, nearly half the states and the District of Columbia hadn't pointed to a single low-performing program, he said. 

"One might be inclined to read these statistics and think that our teacher preparation programs are doing a great job," Harkin said. "Unfortunately, in many cases, teachers report feeling unprepared for the realities of the classroom, and school principals and administrators report that many new teachers are not ready to teach." Harkin said that colleges of education must also do more to collaborate with school districts. 

If Congress does decide to ask colleges of education to report on how their graduates do in the classroom, they have a number of possible policy routes to take. For instance, colleges seeking the seal of approval from the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation—a national accreditor—must document graduates' classroom performance under the newly approved set of standards from the national accrediting group.

The group, whose board chair, Mary Brabeck, testified at the hearing, got a shout-out from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the committee. And some states have already begun to move in this area, chiefly Louisiana, which was also represented at the hearing.   

Also receiving praise from Alexander and other lawmakers: The New Teacher Project, or TNTP, whose president, Tim Daly, was another witness. TNTP, an alternative-certification program, follows its graduates into the classroom and works closely with districts to ensure those teachers are high-performing educators.

Daly acknowledged that not every education school can follow the organization's model, since education school graduates don't always end up getting their first jobs in the same state or district as their college of education. 

But he said that better data is the fastest way to improve teacher preparation.

"Most universities haven't the slightest ability to know how their teachers are doing in the classroom," Daly said. "I would trade almost everything that's currently in Title II [the portion of the Higher Education Act governing teacher training] if we could get that." 

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