Repetition Compulsion? Federal Educator-Prep Rules Reflect Testing Obsession

Federal bureaucrats fighting a rear-guard action in defense of their discredited obsession with standardized testing may be exhibiting the symptoms of what Sigmund Freud called a “repetition compulsion”—a  compulsion to put oneself in situations where a past trauma is likely to repeat itself.

Judging educators by the standardized test results of their students is a counterproductive idea Congress rejected just last year in enacting the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. Unfortunately, officials in the U.S. Department of Education are still pushing the idea where they can. The latest example: new regulations they have just issued for the evaluation of educator preparation programs.

AFT President Randi Weingarten blasted the move in a public statement we commend to your attention here:

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 the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and 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 final regulations could harm students who would benefit the most from consistent, high-quality standards for teacher preparation programs. The regulations will create enormous difficulty for teacher prep programs and place an unnecessary burden on institutions and states, which are also in the process of implementing ESSA.

Instead of designing a system to support and improve teacher prep programs, the regulations build on the now-rejected high-stakes testing system established under NCLB and greatly expanded under this administration’s Race to the Top and waiver programs. It’s stunning that the department would evaluate teaching colleges based on the academic performance of the students of their graduates when ESSA—enacted by large bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate last December—prohibited the department from requiring school districts to do that kind of teacher evaluation.

Teacher prep programs need to help ensure that teachers are ready to engage their students in powerful learning and creating an environment that is conducive to learning. These regulations will not help achieve that goal. These regulations do not address ways to help the current status of the teaching profession: the shortages, the lack of diversity, or the high turnover.

While the department has made minor tweaks, the flawed framework remains the same. 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 of the strategy we need. As we brought up in January 2015—in our comments to the department’s proposal— if 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.

If we want to get it right, we should look to countries like Finland, where prospective teachers receive extensive training in their subject matter and teaching strategies combined with clinical training. Finland has no alternative prep programs. Programs are highly selective and free of cost; their graduates go on to work in supportive, professional environments with strong unions, fair pay and benefits, and without high-stakes testing.