In 1998, Congress inserted a provision into the Higher Education Act that required states to hold their teacher preparation programs accountable. For the first time, states would have to develop a set of criteria to identify low-performing and at-risk programs and identify those programs that failed to meet their own criteria.
The initial response to the accountability requirements illustrates the level of intransigence and bad faith among state policymakers when it comes to improving teacher preparation. Some states rated programs based on the number of program participants who passed the program’s entrance test. Thus, by definition, all programs in those states reported 100 percent pass rates. Other states rated programs based on the licensure exam pass rate of “program completers”—and then defined “program completer” as “a person who has passed the licensure exam.”
Thus, it should surprise no one that 27 states have never identified a single low-performing program. Another 12 have identified five or fewer (see Figure 1 from our new report, A Measured Approach to Improving Teacher Preparation, below). According to the states themselves, Pennsylvania, a major exporter of teachers, hasn’t had a single low-performing teacher preparation program in the last decade. Neither has Alaska or Arizona or Arkansas or Colorado or the District of Columbia or Delaware or Hawaii or Idaho or Massachusetts or Minnesota or Montana or Nebraska or Nevada or New Hampshire or New Jersey or New Mexico or North Dakota or Oklahoma or Oregon or Rhode Island or South Dakota or Utah or Vermont or Virginia or West Virginia or Wisconsin.
If you believe that none of these states had a single under-performing teacher preparation program in a single year over the last decade, I’ve got oceanfront property to sell you in Arizona.
The problem is not just under-identification: Even states that identify low-performing programs do little to help them improve or shut them down. Six institutions have made their state’s list five times, and five have appeared four times. In the last nine years, 119 institutions have been named at-risk or low-performing. Of those, 58 are repeat offenders, having received that designation multiple times. Union College, in Barbourville, Kentucky, has been named to its state’s list of at-risk or low-performing institutions a whopping six times. Yet Union still grants education degrees each year, sending nearly 300 graduates into Kentucky schools, all with the full backing of the state.
States, then, haven’t set a very high bar. Voluntary accrediting agencies haven’t done much better. Of the 18 institutions that states identified as having at-risk or low-performing programs in 2009, eight continue to be accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), and another three have accreditation from the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC). NCATE and TEAC have recently announced plans to merge, but remains unclear if national accreditation can be a clear signal for program quality.
It would be easy for Congress to look at this body of evidence and decide that their next step should be to tighten the screws and develop a new accountability system that talks tough, hands out penalties, and draws strict lines in the sand. But we must resist such impulses. Federal law already contains a host of threats, requirements, and fines for teacher preparation programs, none of which has led to tangible improvements.
Instead, the federal government needs to encourage and support state efforts to expand capacity and take on ambitious plans for teacher preparation reform. This is not just a waiting game. It’s about taking stock of state capacity and then rewarding and supporting the front-runners in reform. At the same time, it’s equally important to address under-performing programs, providing targeted improvement grants to those striving to change and closing those that are incapable of progress. Though this approach lacks tough talk about cracking down or imposing harsh penalties, it is a more realistic and measured approach that encourages honesty and partnership. It also may be the most promising way to get to the goal of reforming preparation programs to produce a high-quality teacher work force.
To learn more about teacher preparation, read A Measured Approach to Improving Teacher Preparation, a new Education Sector policy brief outlining ways the federal government can improve teacher training programs.