By Jane E. West, Ph.D., Senior Vice President for Policy, Programs and Professional Issues at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE)
As education policy continues to center on teacher quality and effectiveness, it is encouraging to see teacher preparation being emphasized. Teacher preparation's critical role in the education system has been an afterthought for far too long. Though, along with the spotlight, come both risks and rewards.
The federal government is an essential contributor to successfully strengthening our nation's higher-education-based teacher preparation programs. Yet many of the most substantial reforms underway in the profession today are primarily driven by the field and are not supported by policy makers. Those reforms include establishing more rigorous clinical practice and residency models, stronger collaborations with arts and sciences, and robust partnerships with PreK-12 school districts. They include development of a valid, reliable Teacher Performance Assessment, recruitment and retention of high-quality Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics teachers, and turnaround efforts for high-need schools in both urban and rural settings. Despite being disregarded repeatedly in federal funding allocations and enduring diminishing state budgets, these programs forge ahead as best as they can because they are dedicated to student learning.
To date, federal policy has been mostly burdensome with little yield (e.g. reporting of graduates' Praxis scores by program). And, when a glimmer of hope does emerge, such as the U.S. Department of Education's recent negotiated rulemaking for teacher preparation, the Administration ignores the voices of those who know the field best and increases regulatory burden to unprecedented levels. If the Administration has its way, every teacher preparation program would be evaluated under a system that relies largely on the unproven value-added scores of program graduates' PK-12 students. Further, regulations would require states to rate every preparation program on a 1-4 scale and tie those ratings to a student's financial aid eligibility.
There are undoubtedly many teacher preparation programs in need of significant reform efforts — some because of choice but many more because of a lack of resources or state systems in place to reach their goals. Rather than having the federal government raise a heavier hand, I propose a different set of strategies to strengthen teacher preparation programs over the long term:
- Make an example of effective programs, and highlight the features that make them successful so that others can follow suit. Invest in the development of robust teacher performance assessments that tell us when a candidate is truly ready to be a teacher-of-record.
- Invest in statewide data systems that link PK-12 outcomes to the graduates of specific programs. Despite the rhetoric that virtually all states have such systems available, only a small portion of AACTE's 800 member institutions report that they are able to access this type of outcome data. This information is eagerly desired by preparation programs to inform program improvement.
- Use our limited federal resources to fortify ties between PK-12 and higher education. Neither sector can prepare tomorrow's teachers alone, so let's help create more great partnerships like that of Long Beach Unified School District and California State University, Long Beach, which yields a high-quality, skilled workforce with a joint commitment to the success of all students. The partnership is deep, produces results and brings multiple resources from the university to bear to help address PK-12 challenges.
- Identify the bad apples. Offer them adequate technical support and if they cannot make the grade, close them. Just as our PK-12 policy has shifted resources to deal with chronic issues of subpar performance, so too should our teacher preparation policy.
- Cease the double standard of unremittingly showing preference to alternate providers of teacher preparation. These programs offer a strong approach to recruitment, and many higher-education preparation programs work in unity with them, but they have sour spots of their own. Rather than offering states funding for multiplying alternate routes (as was done in Race to the Top), the federal government should offer rewards for all types of programs that prepare new teachers to commit to serving high-need schools and fields, so long as they are effective.
Recent surveys show that new teachers and their employers confirm that teacher candidates are feeling better prepared than ever. In fact, an Arizona Department of Education survey found that more than 75 percent of the state's principals felt their schools' teacher preparation program graduates were well prepared in all specified areas. So, let's focus our sparse education resources on more effective strategies — not turning our heads to both the programs that are and are not working, but investing in what works and building partnerships for the future.
Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.