Is Obama’s Education Department overreaching in higher ed?

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. (Yuri Gripas/ Reuters)
President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. (Yuri Gripas/ Reuters)

The U.S. Education Department recently announced that it was reviving a plan to regulate colleges of education by using millions in federal funds to reward those that achieve specific targets and forcing those that don’t to change or close. Federal financial aid to students who go into teacher prep programs would not be based entirely on the individual student’s need but, rather, in part on how well the graduates of those schools raise their students’ test scores. A department effort two years to push this agenda failed — and now Education Secretary Arne Duncan is trying again.

Here is a statement from Sharon P. Robinson,  president and chief executive officer for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, that raises concerns about the plan. While nobody would expect this association to like a new effort to regulate member schools, Robinson raises some legitimate concerns about the role of the federal government in higher education.

The statement:

 

 On April 24, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that the Department of Education will indeed move forward on publishing regulations that the Obama Administration believes will transform teacher preparation for the better. These regulations represent just one dimension of the Administration’s efforts to create a federal ratings system for higher education. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) agrees wholeheartedly with Secretary Duncan that teacher preparation programs are a critical component of the U.S. educator pipeline. We disagree, however, about the current state of teacher preparation and what the appropriate federal role should be.

First, the teacher preparation field is already on an upward trajectory toward ensuring that every teacher candidate is profession-ready—through the increased use of valid and reliable performance assessments, the development of new robust professional accreditation standards and extensive reforms in multiple states. Furthermore, it is disappointing to see that the Administration is exercising unilateral executive authority to implement its priorities for teacher preparation rather than working with Congress to deliberate and act on these very important issues, which are central to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA).

AACTE has long advocated for Congress to reauthorize Title II of HEA to overhaul the current reporting requirements for institutions of higher education to make them more meaningful to both teacher preparation programs and the public. We, along with many higher education and PK-12 organizations, strongly support Senator Jack Reed’s (D-RI) and Representative Mike Honda’s (D-CA) Educator Preparation Reform Act, a bill that reauthorizes Title II and updates the TEACH grants. Unfortunately, the Administration’s proposal is likely to differ significantly from that bill.

In 2012, following negotiated rulemaking sessions on teacher preparation, AACTE and the Higher Education Task Force on Teacher Preparation raised several concerns about the Department’s proposal for defining a “high-quality program” in the TEACH grant statute. The proposal represented a significant overreach of federal authority in the teacher preparation arena, essentially requiring every state to rate its preparation programs, to use metrics that are problematic, to heavily employ PK-12 value-added data based on the students of program graduates and to tie student eligibility for federal financial aid to the rating of the preparation program—and offering no resources to states to undertake this significant effort.

In addition, it is curious that the Department is moving on the regulations at this time, seven years after the TEACH grant program was authorized. The Department has yet to share any meaningful data with the public about the use and impact of the TEACH grants. The limited data AACTE has been able to collect show that tens of thousands of teacher candidates are using these grants to support their preparation, and graduates are already teaching in high-need schools and high-need subject areas (a requirement of the grants). Given that the grants seem to be doing what they were intended to do, which is recruit high performers (who must maintain a 3.25 GPA during their preparation) to become teachers in high-need schools and subject areas; given that Congress is already deliberating on the federal role in accountability for teacher preparation; and given that so many states already have developed or are in the process of developing meaningful systems of determining teacher preparation program quality, we question the utility of this federal intervention.

While we are eager to see what these new regulations include when they are released in the coming months, we are not optimistic that they will be significantly different from what the Department put forward in 2012. Our members look forward to engaging with the Office of Management and Budget, the Department, the Congress and the broader education community over the coming months as the proposal moves forward.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | May 2