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ESEA-Rewrite Bill Includes Controversial Teacher-Prep Provisions

One little-noticed provision in the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, seems to be raising some consternation in the teacher-prep field: a proposal to allow states to use federal teacher-quality funds to sponsor a new kind of teacher-preparation program.

ESSA is poised to replace the No Child Left Behind Act. Under the conference report before the Senate—the last major hurdle before it's signed into law—states would now be authorized to set up teacher-preparation "academies," both inside or outside of higher education, which could operate apart from states' usual rules and regulations for teacher prep. They would, though, only be able to graduate teachers found to be effective at boosting student achievement.

The idea is a bit like the "charterization" of ed. schools. It's the brainchild of folks at the New Schools Venture Fund, and it has in its mind's eye programs like the Relay Graduate School of Education, the Match Teacher Residency, and Urban Teachers.

The concept was originally introduced as a stand-alone bill, the GREAT Act, several years ago, and debate over it has been brewing for quite a long time. Let's take a look at some of the tensions.

Funding: First, to be clear, in the ESSA bill, setting up these academies would only be an allowable use of states' Title II funds, not a required use. (Title II is the law's major $2.3 billion program supporting teacher quality.) The academies wouldn't get their own funding authorization, although the conference report says that states could reserve 2 percent of their cash to set up the academies. But keep in mind that 95 percent of states' allotments get passed through to school districts, and a lot of that cash is tied up in activities like class-size reductions that are hard to repurpose.

Quality: Some advocates say they're concerned that these academies would set a lower bar for teacher quality. The Coalition for Teaching Quality, a group that includes the teachers' unions, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and a number of other state and local organizations, is among them.

"If adopted by states, this option would create lower standards for teacher preparation, allowing teachers-in-training (without full state certification) to enter the classroom as teachers of record, thereby counteracting efforts to prepare all teachers in the ways that research shows are most effective," the group said in a statement.  

Putting aside the last part—there is still a lot of research debate about the most effective ways to prepare teachers—what this comes down to is the philosophical debate over traditional versus alternative certification. Supporters counter that state certification isn't a great proxy for teacher effectiveness, and that the legislation wouldn't permit ineffective teachers to be certified.

Regulation: This is probably the hardest area to understand. In the past, higher education groups have been upset that the language explicitly would let the academies bypass state rules and higher education entirely, but would nevertheless give non-university-based programs access to federal financial-aid programs. A major critic of the GREAT Act, Kenneth Zeichner of the University of Washington, has written a lot more about this in an Washington Post op-ed, in which he says states should be the ones to decide the content and requirements for programs. Here again, though, there's a counterpoint: Most states' program-approval processes are really weak, and it's not at all clear that they identify the most important aspects of preparation.

At this point, it's unclear whether this is merely a symbolic move, or a portent of things to come in states' teacher-preparation regimes. But it certainly bears close attention.

If you haven't already, also make sure to look at Education Week's backgrounder on all of ESSA's other teacher-quality provisions. 

  for the latest news on teacher policy and politics.

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