Blog: The Educated Reporter

Holding States Accountable for Teacher Quality

Moderator Michael Stratford listens as Deborah Koolbeck, left, and Sandi Jacobs discuss accountability for teacher preparation programs. (Michael Marriott for EWA)

Demands for accountability have finally arrived at the doorsteps of teacher colleges. Helping to spur the change are a controversial Government Accountability Office report on teacher-preparation programs released over the summer, and forthcoming federal regulations intended to hold them accountable for how graduates perform in the classroom.

At a recent EWA seminar for journalists, the GAO’s Melissa Emrey-Arras shared major findings of the report, including an alarming absence of performance data for teacher-preparation institutions  in a number of states–even when required by federal law. At least seven unnamed states (responsible for a combined 72,000 teacher candidates) failed to comply with the Higher Education Act, which requires that states identify “at-risk” and “low-performing” teacher colleges, she noted. And the report called out the U.S. Department of Education for its failure to enforce those requirements.

Other findings of the report included what some reporters have long known: that federal Title II data collected under the Higher Education Act comes rife with inconsistencies. One such example, Emrey-Arras said, can be found in how states define and report the number of teacher education “program completers.” In some states, this label means you graduated and passed required licensure exams. Elsewhere, it just means you completed program coursework. That variation is not made clear in the data, said Emrey-Arras.

But the defining question of the panel, moderated by Inside Higher Ed reporter Michael Stratford, focused on President Obama’s proposed regulations,which are still in the works but are expected to hold colleges fiscally accountable for how their teacher graduates perform). Is the Obama plan overreach or overdue?

The answer largely depends on who you ask.

Among the proposed regulations expected are requirements that colleges track the rate at which their graduates get (and keep) jobs, and that states judge schools based on their teacher graduates’ performance in the classroom for the first three years, factoring in student learning outcomes. Consequences could include the loss of federal TEACH grants, which teacher-candidates use to pay for school. That’s a consequence some fear will disproportionately affect schools that specifically aim to serve disadvantaged students, particularly minority-serving institutions. This is especially concerning given the sore lack of racial and ethnic diversity among the national teacher workforce.

Fear of too much federal oversight is common in American politics, but when it comes to teacher preparation, states would still be largely in control of their programs, said Sandi Jacobs, from the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and advocacy group.

“No [teacher preparation] program operates without state authority to do so. Whether alternative or traditional, nobody just says ‘now we prepare teachers,’” Jacobs told the EWA audience at the Chicago event in October.

And states are already exploring how they might hold their own teacher preparation institutions accountable for teacher performance, according to Jacobs.

“There was this ‘aha’ [moment], maybe we ought to be thinking about how they’re coming into the classroom,” she said. “It’s fitting that the feds are also turning their attention.”

The GAO report found several states in noncompliance with existing federal regulations that  require states and universities to submit significant data for Title II reporting. Experts say additional and more extensive data requirements, while potentially beneficial in the long run, could make that load a heavier lift.

“This will be additional compliance,” said Deborah Koolbeck, the director of government relations at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. States will need to collect significant longitudinal data to evaluate programs meaningfully, she said, and “some states are really far off from being able to do that.” And a rating system with financial-aid consequences could hinder innovations in teacher education, she warned.

The complicated, state-specific teacher licensing system could also interfere with a federal rating system. Requirements for program completion and teacher licensure vary widely from state to state. And teacher preparation accountability is done at the state level for that reason, making federal regulation tough to implement, Koolbeck told assembled reporters.

For reporters looking for story ideas, Koolbeck and Jacobs recommend using Title II data as a starting line. Get a sense of what that data does and doesn’t reveal about a state’s programs then start asking officials what changes they plan to make, and what data collection rules and systems they do (or don’t have) in place.

“There are some states that are going be able to check the box because they’re already doing this and there are other states at the starting line,” said Jacobs. She offered Delaware as an example of the former. It issues state report cards with measures of performance for teacher preparation programs.

And Koolbeck said members of state chapters of the AACTE can tell reporters about new programs colleges in their area are trying, and how the proposed federal regulations will impact them. In the meantime, both Koolbeck and Jacobs agreed that while federal attention to teacher education programs is a good thing, no one education policy is the cure-all.

“No single measure is going to tell you everything you need to know,” said Jacobs, “whether it’s about a teacher or the programs that prepare them.”