Now We’re Going to Rate and Rank Teachers’ Colleges: Will This Improve Teaching?

Right before Thanksgiving, Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education quietly released new guidance (administrative rules not subject to Congressional approval or disapproval) to set up a process for evaluating and rating colleges of education (and even the alternative certification programs) and then for punishing those deemed in need of improvement.  What do the new rules mean?

In a kind gesture, Stephen Sawchuk, in Education Week, created what he calls a “Cliffs Notes” version of the 400 pages of regulations.  “The U.S. Department of Education, at long last, has released proposed regulations that flesh out federal accountability requirements for teacher preparation. Those provisions have been in Title II of the law in some form since 1998, but have largely been considered weak soup.  The law permitted states to set up their own systems for identifying ‘at risk’ and ‘low-performing’ programs…. Under the new rules, states would have to use federally prescribed measures to make their determinations.  These would include programs’ placement and retention rates, surveys of employers of the program graduates, and assurances that the programs provide quality clinical training…. From that data, states would assign each program to one of at least four categories—from low-performing through exceptional—and only those in the two highest categories could offer federal TEACH grants.”  Federal TEACH grants, according to Sawchuk, give “candidates who promise to teach in high-needs subjects and in low-income schools $4,000 a year to pay for teacher preparation.”  “So is this a done deal?:  No. The public can comment for 60 days on the rules after they’re published in the Federal Register. The Department can then withdraw the rules, or modify them before it publishes a final rule.”  There is also a long time line for the implementation; consequences very likely won’t be felt until 2020.  Sawchuck summarizes the meaning of the new regulations: “to try to hold higher education more accountable for outcomes.”

Let’s begin by being very clear: nobody thinks teacher training programs should be unaccountable and everybody agrees we want all teachers to be equipped, no matter where they are trained.  In her book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch devotes several pages (pp. 274-277) to the topic of strengthening the teaching profession.  Her expectations are explicit:  “To raise the quality of education in our schools, states and districts must strengthen the education profession.  Ideally, teachers should have a four-year degree with a major in the subject or subjects they plan to teach… Once they are admitted into a professional education program, they should engage in a year of study of such subjects as cognitive science, literacy, child development and adolescent psychology, the sociology of the family and the community, cultural diversity, the needs of students with disabilities, the nature of testing, and the history, politics, and economics of education. They should deepen their knowledge of the subject or subjects they plan to teach, with opportunities to plan lessons and work with mentors.  They should practice teaching under the guidance of an experienced teacher.  No one should be allowed to teach who has not spent a year in the study and practice of the profession.  Once hired, they should work closely with a mentor teacher.”

The problem is that, for those teacher preparation programs that may be struggling, a rating system is unlikely to help colleges make programs more rigorous.  In an excellent series of blog posts last winter on the subject of strengthening programs for training teachers, Mike Rose, a professor in the graduate school of education at UCLA, cautions us and Arne Duncan to respond with sensitivity to the task at hand: “College and university-based teacher education programs vary considerably by size, region, student body, nature and focus of curriculum, talent of instructional staff, status with home institution, balance of coursework and practice, relation with local district, and more.  Some are excellent, some are good and experimenting with ways to get better, some are weak in some respects but decent in others, some are marginal and poorly run.  The language of the current criticism of teacher ed, at least the most public language, doesn’t allow for this variability.”

Rose continues: “There’s an assumption… that students interested in a teaching career are free agents, able to make the classical economists’ rational choice about benefits and losses, and act accordingly.  They are able to go to the school that will provide the greatest payoff. But… some students are not in a financial or personal position to make such a choice. The local teacher ed program is their only option.”  Rose then comments on recently published critiques of teacher training. “Reading these reports, one gets the sense that the authors are at a great social distance from the lives of such students.  Some of the reports also operate at a real distance from the colleges and universities they criticize. What struck me about several of the small out-of-the-way programs I visited during my travel for Possible Lives was how embedded they were in their communities, how well the faculty understood the kids in the schools, the local history, the social and economic pressures on the region. Some of the faculty themselves went to local, non-elite colleges or universities, they didn’t publish in scholarly journals, they didn’t have the bonafides of their contemporaries in snazzier institutions. But they were smart and skillful, and they provided substantial support to the novice teachers in their charge: mentoring them, meeting with them after hours, observing them teach.”

We certainly ought to attend to one criticism of the new regulations: the evaluation system includes judging colleges of education and other training programs based on the standardized test scores of students in the K-12 schools where new teachers get jobs.  Sawchuck explains: “controversially, states would have to assess whether program graduates helped to boost K-12 achievement, measured either directly on the basis of student-growth measures or via the proxy of teacher evaluations.  Research is mixed on whether such techniques as ‘value added’ measurements—which attempt to isolate the impact of individual teachers on students’ standardized-test scores—can make clear distinctions about program quality.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks to this concern in her response to the release of the new regulations:  “With these proposed regulations, the administration is moving to rate teacher preparation programs based partly on the test scores of the K-12 students of the graduates of the programs in question. It is our strong hope that the administration will be persuaded to move away from the excessive use of high-stakes testing and its consequences…  There’s no evidence these regulations will lead to improvement and plenty of reason to believe they will cause harm.  Teacher preparation programs that send graduates to teach in high-need schools, where research shows the test scores are likely to be lower and the teacher turnover higher, will receive lower ratings and could lose funding.”

Ranking and rating is the way of the world in 2014.  There are rankings for hospitals and school districts and individual schools  and teachers.  U.S. News ranks colleges and universities, and here in Ohio, where I live, Cleveland Magazine ranks the suburbs. Not all of these ratings and rankings are official, but they all operate the same way.  It is now possible to identify some characteristics of a particular institution or profession, connect them to particular individuals or institutions, assign to them a numerical value, and even apply econometric analysis.  Complete the job by touching the sort function on a spreadsheet program and there is your ranking.  Computers have made it easy to rate and rank.   As we think about rating teachers’ colleges, however, we need to think carefully about the degree to which the training programs are really the responsible parties for the particular qualities that are being evaluated in their graduates.  Then we need to consider whether the rankings are based on qualities and characteristics that matter.  And then, of course, comes another question: are we as a society prepared to support real improvement—especially in our public colleges and universities where state budget austerity continues to gut programs.

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