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Teacher-Prep Rulemaking: Is Consensus in Jeopardy?

The panelists charged with rewriting federal teacher-preparation rules faced a grueling day today during which major tension points emerged with little resolution, all of which served to call into question whether they will be able to reach consensus by Thursday.

You don't have to take my word for it: During some of the breaks, I spoke to a handful of negotiators—they all, reasonably, wanted to speak on background since the process isn't finished yet—and by and large, they weren't optimistic:

"It seems doubtful." "Probably not good." "I don't know." "I think the answer is probably no."

If the panelists don't reach a final consensus, the U.S. Department of Education gets to go it alone when writing the regulations.

Some of the tensions that emerged today have been brewing under the surface for a while, but as of the last session, there at least seemed to be agreement on the Education Department's proposal to classify their teacher-preparation programs into four categories: "low performing," "at risk," effective," and "exceptional," based on a mix of input- and output-based measures.

So what happened today? First, the USED put a few new proposals on the table that weren't well received. And on top of that, the panelists were bombarded by no fewer than four letters from groups of higher education deans criticizing various aspects of the teacher-quality proposals, in what seemed like a concerted effort to introduce even more doubt into the process.

Sticking Points

Two major sticking points emerged in today's discussions. One is an attempt to tie the rating system, which is currently only used for reporting, to a financial-aid program known as TEACH. The panelists differed on how high preparation programs should have to score in order to be eligible to receive the grant, with some saying the top two categories, while others, including ED, arguing for just the top category.

The other is the place of "value added" outcome measures, which would be one of the possible ways programs could show their graduates are having an impact on student learning.

The U.S. ED's representative on the panel proposed giving way on the first issue, potentially opening TEACH eligibility to more programs—but only provided those in the "effective' category also proved their students made at least a year of growth on the student-achievement measure.

That idea didn't go over well with some of the panelists, who noted that in prior sessions, the panelists had agreed to weigh student achievement outcomes as one of four total measures. And it led to an entire discussion on the merits of value added. One negotiator, New Mexico State University Dean Michael Morehead, read a prepared statement intimating he wouldn't support any proposal to include them.

"Trying to review several thousand sets of scores and relate them back to teacher education cannot be completely valid or reliable no matter how sophisticated the statistical analysis," he said. "If the [Education] Department wants accurate assessments to guide the reviews of teacher education programs, this measure is certainly not one of them, and I oppose its use as presently being considered."

(Other panelists, in private, disagreed with Morehead's depiction of value-added.)

A second proposal by the Education Department, to make elements of a previously drafted definition of "quality clinical preparation" optional rather than mandatory in states' teacher-preparation quality reviews, seemed to alienate even those panelists who have thus far seemed to be most on board with ED's plans. It took quite a bit of massaging of the language to get ED's concerns fixed before the agency withdrew this idea.

Deans Weigh In

As if that weren't enough on its face, a bunch of prominent teacher educators weighed in with letters sent to the committee. It's hard not to see this as evidence that higher education, having finally woken up to these discussions, is not at all happy with how they are going.

There's really far too much in these letters to outline here on the blog, so I"ll just post them here and here for you to chew on. In essence, they say that the proposals are too expensive and burdensome for states, rely on flawed or untested methodology, or aren't based in research.

Two of the letter-writers are worth pointing out: Michael Feuer, the dean of George Washington University's education school, and Camilla Benbow, the dean of Vanderbilt University's education school.

Their names should ring a bell. Both are currently working on other projects to set teacher-preparation evaluation standards. Feuer is heading a National Science Foundation-funded project to devise a new system for evaluating teacher preparation. And Benbow is a co-chair of the panel that has been tapped to set the standards for the new, merged national teacher education accreditation body.

It's probably fair to say that these two individuals' positions on the federal rulemaking outline how far they'll be willing to go on things like value-added measures on their own projects.

Two additional letters came from groups representing minority-serving institutions. One, from the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, protested the value-added piece particularly. Such measures would negatively affect their programs, prevent them from receiving financial aid through TEACH, and lead to a less-diverse teaching force, it said. The other, from the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, protested the entire rating system on similar grounds, saying it would disproportionately affect minority-serving institutions.

On top of all that, rumors are floating around that the American Council on Education, a powerful higher-ed lobby, has been working on an alternative proposal for grading teacher education to present to the negotiators tomorrow, but we don't know yet if that's going to come to fruition or not.

Miles to Go

After this morning's problems, the afternoon was filled with quite long discussions about technical problems of sample sizes for small programs and a fair bit of wordsmithing, e.g., "clinical fieldwork" vs. "student teaching" vs. "practicum," etc. (The gentleman sitting behind me started doodling flowers on his iPad's drawing program at about this point.)
Best quote of the day during this part of the rulemaking goes to National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education's Jim Cibulka for acknowledging what I'm sure a lot of us in the peanut gallery were thinking: "Here we bump against the failing of our field to define basic terms."

But on everyone's minds, I assume, are the unresolved questions from the morning session. Will the negotiators manage to pull this difficult work off? Stay tuned to Teacher Beat.

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