Sizing Up a Proposed Federal Teacher-Prep Initiative

A new report from the U.S. Department of Education out today calls for greater accountability on the part of teacher-preparation programs and for grant programs targeted to increase diversity within the teaching corps and to aid states in establishing rigorous certification systems.

The American Federation of Teachers said today that the feds are right to make improvements in teacher preparation a priority, but AFT questioned the plan’s focus in some areas, such as evaluating teachers based on students’ standardized test scores.

AFT President Randi Weingarten said: “There is much that can and should be done to improve teacher preparation programs—but we were surprised that a principal recommendation of the report was to judge the effectiveness of a teacher preparation program by, among other things, the test scores of students being taught by its graduates. At the same time that the validity of using standardized tests as the ultimate measure of performance is being widely questioned, the U.S. Department of Education appears to be putting its foot on the accelerator by calling for yet another use for tests—and one for which they were not designed.” (The federal insistence on this approach parallels developments in Texas, where a state teacher-prep evaluation initiative now in the works apparently would give substantial weight to standardized test scores of students taught by each prep program’s graduates.)

Weingarten added: “The report also proposes to expand grants to teaching programs and students. Rewarding a few deserving candidates is a fine idea, but this is the time to address the larger structural issues confronting teacher preparation today. We lose half of our new teachers in their first five years of teaching, and better preparation would help reduce that rate. So rather than creating a competition that provides resources to some but not others, our educational policies should foster programs that provide all aspiring teachers the preparation they need to succeed in the classroom.

“In 2000, AFT issued a report decrying the state of teacher preparation and made a number of recommendations; sadly, they have not been implemented widely. The improvements we called for include setting higher entry standards for teacher education programs, instituting core liberal arts classes for all education students, requiring subject-matter majors for education students, developing core pedagogy in key subjects, strengthening clinical-experience programs, imposing higher exit and licensure standards, ensuring that alternative licensure programs meet the high standards, and strengthening teacher induction programs.

“Those recommendations have gained broad support among experts in the field, and they stand as a solid foundation to build on as we move forward to truly strengthen teacher education….The challenges we face today to improve teacher quality require a comprehensive approach. Revamping teacher preparation programs is one part of a solution that also must include high-quality induction for new teachers, as well as mentoring and professional development programs that expose beginning educators to the best classroom models and the most skillful practitioners.”