The Obama Department of Education has less than three months left to impose its test-obsessed, accountability-driven agenda for school reform. To cap its record of technocratic policy, the Department of Education just published final regulations requiring states to evaluate and rate teacher education programs—whether traditional college-based programs or shorter alternative programs like the five-week summer training for Teach for America. The new regulations are Arne Duncan’s project. Draft rules were distributed for feedback in 2014, and John King has filled the position of Secretary of Education for less than a year.
Here is how Inside Higher Education describes the final rules: “The new rules require reporting of program-level data on graduates’ job placement and retention, consistent with what the Obama administration is doing in other aspects of higher education; feedback from graduates and their employers; and learning outcomes of students taught by graduates of prep programs. The final rules give significant flexibility to states to determine the specific measures used to gauge student learning outcomes.”
Emma Brown of the Washington Post explains further the controversial idea that programs to train teachers will be judged by the achievement of the students eventually taught by a program’s graduates: “In the regulations, the Education Department still requires states to judge teacher training programs based on whether students are learning. But the new regulations leave it up to states to decide how to measure student learning and how much that variable should count toward an overall rating… States must rate programs ‘low–performing,’ ‘at-risk,’ or ‘effective’; those rated less than effective for two out of any three years will be stripped of their eligibility for federal Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, or TEACH, grants—up to $4,000 a year for aspiring teachers who commit to working in high-needs schools after graduation.”
Stiffening evaluation of colleges of education has been part and parcel of the teacher-blaming strategy of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—federal programs that have demanded ever rising scores on standardized tests without addressing poverty, segregation, and unequal school funding—and have instead castigated teachers in places where standardized test scores have not significantly risen. One of the federally prescribed school turnaround plans featured replacing half the staff at so-called “failing” schools.
Accountability hawks are pleased with the new rules. Lots of other people worry about what this new wave of regulations will mean. To be fair, the rules themselves do not prescribe that states will use the standardized test scores of students of graduates of the teachers colleges to judge the teachers colleges themselves, but because standardized test scores have for nearly 20 years been our yardstick for measuring school achievement, people worry that standardized test scores will be chosen by most states as their tool for evaluating colleges of education.
Back when this debate began, Valerie Strauss published a three-part analysis (here, here, and here) by Mike Rose, a professor at the Graduate School of Education at UCLA. At that time, it had been proposed that teachers’ students’ test scores would definitely be the measure. Rose emphasizes his commitment to improving America’s colleges of education, but he responds to what he believes was then (and continues to be) a misguided plan: “The evaluation mechanism that many critics advocate—judging a program’s effectiveness by the test scores of the students taught by their graduates—seems like a fairly straightforward proposition, but, in fact, presents a host of conceptual and design problems. To be honest, I’m a little surprised that it’s being promoted with such gusto, given recent history. Recall the multiple problems that arose with No Child Left Behind’s use of standardized tests to define achievement…. It bespeaks of either social amnesia or technocratic enchantment that we would rush to a model driven by the standardized test score and, to boot, insert one more complex variable into the chain of efficacy: now we have a putative causal chain that goes from the student test score to the teacher to the teacher’s training institution. Imagine judging business schools by the amount of money their graduates generate for their employers.”
Rose continues: “Consider the variables: There are the individual characteristics and behaviors of the graduates, not only personality traits, but also events that can affect their careers—marriage, family disruption, illness. Then there are all the variables related to the place of employment: the nature of the business, its economic status and organizational health, the relationships among co-workers. As well, social and economic conditions beyond the business affect it, and thus the performance of its employees. As is too often the case with contemporary school reform, what seems simple and straightforward is anything but.”
There will be, obviously, practical concerns states will have to consider as they set out to follow the new rules and toughen evaluation of their colleges of education. In northern Montana, for example, a student is far better off attending Montana State Northern in Havre and being carefully supervised while student teaching than trying to commute across hundreds of miles to the bigger state universities in Bozeman or Missoula. And the teaching programs being developed at the tribal colleges offer culturally relevant curriculum that will enrich the lives of the children on Indian reservations but would be unlikely to be measurable. And imagine the expense that will be required of teachers colleges and states to track the graduates of particular teacher training programs across teachers’ careers as they move from school district to school district and from state to state.
Rose highlights the problems with an evaluation system that is likely to promote elite institutions and ignore the myriad colleges of education that serve prospective teachers across the states: “There is 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 describes what he has observed in such programs: “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 of 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.”
Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, identifies an immediate danger of the new rules: “It is, quite simply, ludicrous to propose evaluating teacher preparation programs based on the performance of the students taught by a program’s graduates. Frankly, the only conceivable reason the department would release regulations so out of sync with… President Obama’s own call to reduce high-stakes testing is that they are simply checking off their bucket list of outstanding issues before the end of their term… The regulations will punish teacher prep programs whose graduates go on to teach in our highest-needs schools, most often those with high concentrations of students who live in poverty and English language learners—the exact opposite strategy of what we need…. (I)f programs are rated as the department proposes, teacher prep schools will have incentive to steer graduates away from assignments in our toughest schools, and that will only make matters worse.”