Teacher Prep Regulations Rise from Dead, Turn Spotlight to States

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Many had written them off for dead. But last week, over five years after it first opened public conversation on them, the U.S. Department of Education released its final regulations governing how states hold their teacher preparation programs accountable, as required by the federal Higher Education Act.

New America’s Education Policy Program supported the premise and general approach of the Department’s draft regulations. But we, like many others, also submitted public comments suggesting how they could be strengthened to be fair yet meaningful for states, preparation programs, teacher preparation candidates, the schools who ultimately employ newly-minted teachers, and the students they serve. The difficulty of balancing the distinct interests of so many diverse stakeholders goes without saying. As its 649 pages of responses to public comments convey, the Department genuinely attempted to consider the needs and constraints of these different stakeholders in crafting its final regulations, while still moving toward improvement in how teachers are prepared for the classroom. So what was the end result and what happens next?

The major changes the new regulations put in place for teacher preparation program accountability, described in more detail here and here, are requiring states to:

  • Annually report on “outcomes” of graduates from individual preparation programs (not just at the overall school of education or alternative preparation provider level), including job placement and retention, preparedness perceptions of graduates and employers, and student learning outcomes.
  • Assure that teacher preparation programs produce candidates with content and pedagogical knowledge, quality clinical preparation, and who meet rigorous exit qualifications
  • Use the above measures, along with other state-determined measures, to provide programs with an overall rating that meaningfully differentiates between at least three performance categories: effective, at-risk, and low-performing.

Additionally, TEACH grants—federal aid to prospective teachers who commit to working in a high-need teaching role after completing their preparation—will only be available to prospective teachers attending preparation programs rated effective or higher for at least two of the previous three years.

But what will ultimately matter most is how states decide to implement these new regulations. 

But what will ultimately matter most is how states decide to implement these new regulations. And it is difficult not to be somewhat concerned about this aspect. As with the recently-enacted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), these regulations leave most decisions about how to determine program performance squarely in states’ courts. It’s not being talked about, but this is actually the biggest non-change the regulations would bring to teacher preparation program accountability—in fact, the reluctance of most states to label poorly performing programs as such when they were required by federal law to do so was a key reason that the Department initially decided to develop these new regulations.

States’ implementation of these regulations, along with their implementation of ESSA, will be a very public test of one approach to federalism for our already decentralized school system: providing high-level federal guidelines for ensuring quality and equity in our public schools, but leaving most of the details for how to actually do so to states. To be successful, this approach must enable innovative education reforms among those states willing and able to embark on them, while simultaneously putting pressure on states that may not be as focused on ensuring every student has strong learning opportunities, and may be content with business as usual.

It has been, and will continue to be, a tricky line for the federal government to walk. In general, policies like the new teacher preparation regulations are a step in the right direction. However, they are not really encouraging a push for excellence, only a push away from deficiency: the top rating category required by the federal government in its final regulations is “effective,” not “exceptional” (although states could choose to add an additional “highly-effective”-type rating category). If teacher preparation programs’ primary focus is on not being bad, instead of trying to be great, then the culture of ongoing improvement that we know we desperately need in our PreK-12 schools, and the programs that prepare educators to serve in them, is unlikely to materialize.

If teacher preparation programs’ primary focus is on not being bad, instead of trying to be great, then the culture of ongoing improvement that we know we desperately need in our PreK-12 schools, and the programs that prepare educators to serve in them, is unlikely to materialize.

But the focus on deficiency rather than excellence is consistent with the statutory language in the Higher Education Act (HEA) that these regulations support. With HEA reauthorization widely expected to be on the congressional agenda next year, a great opportunity exists to take the idea of encouraging preparation programs to continue to learn and improve themselves to the next level. New America has developed recommendations for what a reauthorized HEA could do to push teacher preparation improvement in its 2014 report, Time to Improve, which can provide further guidance to federal policymakers interested in encouraging improvement in teachers’ preparation.

Until then, teacher preparation accountability may be business as usual for some states, just with a more complex set of data collection efforts to get there. But states with the moxie to take the long view—and put the needs of students and future educators before the conveniences of teacher preparation providers—now have the political cover to do so. While the Department’s new regulations don’t mandate accountability systems that incentivize excellence, they do more clearly outline the authority states have to move in this direction (or for the few states that have already done so, to continue their efforts in this area).

As states read and reflect on these new rules, they should think big. 

As states read and reflect on these new rules, they should think big. Not only are the means for improving preparation program quality similar to ESSA’s means for improving PreK-12 school quality, but the goals are as well: creating public reporting systems that rely on data and feedback to promote ongoing learning, not just for students, but also the adults working in and supporting our nation’s education system. The timeframes for design and implementation are also similar, with the bulk of the planning being required to happen in the 2016-17 school year. This creates an enormous opportunity for states to attempt to do what the federal government has not yet done, which is coordinate the myriad policies and programs governing teaching, from pre-service to in-service, into one coherent strategy—the method most likely to truly improve our learning systems for both students and educators.

However, the staff working on ESSA planning and implementation within a state are unlikely to be those working on planning and implementation for these teacher preparation regulations. In fact, these individuals aren’t likely to even be working for the same state authority, as K-12 and higher education are often governed by different state bodies. This poses a serious problem for areas of clear overlap between ESSA and the teacher preparation regulations. For example, measures of student learning are required components of both ESSA school accountability plans and teacher preparation accountability plans. If states fail to coordinate this element, they will end up with incongruous systems for K-12 and higher education that not only create additional burden on the state and local education agencies, but also breed confusion about what is most important.

Governors should encourage collaboration between those working to implement ESSA and the new federal teacher preparation regulations to ensure coherence instead of confusion. While this work is difficult, a 2013 report by the Center for American Progress highlights several states that have instituted efforts to improve communication and consistency between K-12 and higher education. If these new teacher preparation regulations prompt more states to follow suit, they will have been long worth the wait.

Author:

Melissa Tooley is the director of Educator Quality with New America's Education Policy program. She is a member of the PreK-12 team, where she provides research and analysis on PreK-12 policies and practices that impact teaching quality and school leadership.