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Teacher-Prep Ranking System in Higher Ed. Proposal Irks Teachers' Unions

Teachers' unions applauded the increased emphasis of on-the-job training for teachers and principals in preparation programs that's included in Senate Democrats' proposal to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. But they're much less enthusiastic about a new grant included in the bill for ranking those prep programs.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced a discussion draft of the bill on Wednesday, which includes, among other things, a new grant for ranking teacher colleges and leadership programs based in part on student test scores. And the American Federation of Teachers isn't happy about that.

AFT president Randi Weingarten, in a letter to Harkin dated June 24, blasted the proposal. Here's a snippet of her argument:

"The AFT does not support the use of K-12 student test scores as a tool for the evaluation of teacher preparation programs. Testing in English, language arts and math should not be the be-all and end-all for evaluating the teaching profession or the preparation of teachers. Student achievement tests are not designed for preparation program assessment, and there is no proven link between features of teacher preparation programs and differences in student test scores. Finally, use of student test scores may have an unfair impact on preparation programs whose graduates serve high needs students."

The National Education Association was less irked. Mary Kusler, NEA's government relations director, explained that teacher-evaluation systems based in part on student test scores are more or less already in place around the country.

"To certain extent it's already in law," she said. "So whether we like it or not, the reality is it's not new. What we really tried to impart to the committee is that we need to be talking about multiple levels of student learning. Lots of states are working now to develop multi-faceted systems."

OK, time to get really wonky about what this new grant would actually mean for states.

Harkin's draft bill includes a brand new grant available for states to assess teacher- and school-leadership prep programs. It largely mimics the Obama administration's agenda for creating a rating system to weed out those that are ineffective. Per the new grant, states must sort each prep program into one of at least four performance levels that are differentiated based on data that includes (hold on to your hats, here comes some major wonk):

  •  A measure of teacher impact on student learning for recent graduates employed as full-time teachers. This can be demonstrated two different ways: For states that have teacher-evaluation systems that use student achievement data, it can be measured through the percentage of recent program graduates in each evaluation category. For states that lack such an evaluation system, it can be measured through the percent of recent program graduates who demonstrate evidence of improved student growth that is evidence-based or validated through external measures, such as student surveys or principal evaluations.
  • The number and percent of recent graduates employed as full-time teachers who are identified as well-prepared by their employers in surveys.
  • The number and percent of graduates employed as full-time teachers who identify themselves as being well-prepared in surveys.
  • The number and percent of graduates from teacher-prep programs who are still teaching in full-time positions after three years.
  • The number and percent of teacher who graduated from prep programs in the most recent years who are teaching in full-time positions.

The rating system for school-leadership prep programs is the same, just substitute "school leader" for "teacher."

Repercussions for ranking low in this new system? Programs identified as low-performing for one year would be required to develop and implement an improvement plan; those identified as low-performing for three consecutive years would lose eligibility for TEACH grants, which subsidize teacher-candidates who agree to teach in high-need schools; and those identified as low-performing for four consecutive years would be shuttered.

Harkin's attempt to put teeth in what are generally considered fairly lax accountability requirements for teacher colleges in the Higher Education Act will likely be reflected in the Education Department's forthcoming teacher-prep regulations, slated to drop any day now for public comment.

Also new in the Harkin bill—and something both teachers' unions are cheering—is an increased emphasis on clinical training in teacher-prep programs. Harkin's proposal includes grants for programs that want to boost on-the-job training in high-need schools, rural schools, or high-need subjects. Training programs that nab the money would focus on helping teachers and school leaders understand how to build a positive classroom and school culture.

The money could be used to help teachers link teaching practices to student learning; create effective lesson plans; modify instruction as a result of data analysis; and implement differentiated instruction. And it could be used to help school leaders know how to lead effective teams of teachers; identify and model effective classroom practices; recruit and support effective teachers; and engage the community and parents.

The bill maintains the Educator Quality Partnership grants, but expands them to include school-leadership programs. The competitive grants are disbursed to programs that recruit, prepare, and support teachers and leaders, especially those from underrepresented populations, like African-Americans and Hispanics, to teach in or lead schools in high-need or rural districts. The intent and requirements of the grant are largely the same, but the evaluation component is a little heavier.

Efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act are also underway in the House of Representatives, where Republicans on the Education and the Workforce Committee began rolling out a series of bills Thursday. The bill on teacher-prep programs hasn't

But according to a white paper that committee chairman John Kline, R-Minn., released on Tuesday, the forthcoming proposal won't look anything like Harkin's bill.

In the outline, Kline proposed streamlining existing federal programs related to teacher quality, many of which he argued provide little information to policymakers on what works.

"The federal government operates more than 82 programs across 10 agencies related to teacher quality," Kline writes in his white paper. "Most programs overlap with scant coordination across the federal government."

Kline's bill would also cut down on reporting requirements of teacher colleges, which he said tell us how many teacher candidates participate in these programs, but not if they actually improve teaching skills and students outcomes. As for the Educator Quality Partnership grants, those would be removed from the higher education law entirely and put into the reauthorization of the federal K-12 education law, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Stay tuned for more specifics on House Republicans' bills as they become available over the next few weeks, as Kline promised a swift introduction and committee mark up process.

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