Obama administration wants better-trained teachers

The Obama administration is making a second attempt to regulate the way the country prepares its classroom teachers, saying training programs should be held accountable to improve the quality of K-12 teachers.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that his department will propose regulations for teacher training programs this summer and seek public input in a process that should result in final rules in a year.

“Far too many teachers I talk with feel teacher prep programs simply aren’t preparing them for the realities of the difficulties and hard work” they face in the classroom, Duncan said Thursday, adding that teachers complain they didn’t get enough time inside actual classrooms while they were training. “Often, the majority of teachers are saying they weren’t prepared.”

About 1.6 million teachers are expected to retire this decade, and Duncan said his agency wants to support quality training programs and weed out those that are weak.

“Programs that are producing teachers where students are less successful, they either need to change or do something else, go out of business,” he said.

Some professions have standardized systems and national exams to ensure consistency. Medical students, for example, undergo a four-year program and a residency before taking a state licensing exam and national board exams, all designed so new physicians have the same core knowledge and practical skills.

But teacher preparation programs vary from school to school, and each state sets its own licensing requirements. Most programs are run by universities, but some are run by nonprofit groups or school districts. They each have their own standards of admission and completion requirements.

A 2007 McKinsey study found that 23 percent of U.S. teachers graduated in the top third of their class, while 100 percent of teachers in Singapore, Finland and other nations whose students lead the world on international exams finished near the top of their classes.

One obvious shortcoming of U.S. teacher training programs is the fact that few track their alumni to learn how they perform once they begin teaching, Duncan said.

Proposed regulations would require education schools that receive some federal funding to try to measure the job performance of their alumni, he said.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has proposed a standard entry test for the teaching profession, similar to the bar exams that lawyers must pass. She said the country needs a “systemic approach to preparing teachers and a higher threshold to ensure that every teacher is ready to teach on his or her first day in the classroom” and not “quick-fix, test-and-punish, market-based ranking of programs.”

This is the second time the department has tried to regulate the way that schools of education prepare teachers.

An earlier administration effort to set teacher preparation reporting and accountability rules collapsed in 2012. The Education Department had proposed requiring states to rate their teacher preparation programs using a variety of measures, including test scores from students the teachers went on to have in class. But, mirroring a larger national debate, negotiators could not agree whether test scores are a valid way to assess teacher quality.

“There is no test anywhere that adequately connects K-12 student performance with what happened at a university 20 years before,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, which represents colleges and universities. He called the administration’s plans “a remarkably bad idea” and predicted that the proposed rules will face stiff opposition.

Duncan said proposed rules also would affect alternative teacher preparation programs, such as Teach for America, which places thousands of freshly minted college graduates in teaching jobs in some of the toughest schools in the country after five weeks of training.

TFA announced in March that it was rethinking its training program in light of complaints from members that they need more preparation. The organization is launching a pilot program to offer TFA recruits a year of classes in educational theory and pedagogy, along with hands-on classroom experience, while they are still in college and before they begin teaching full time.

Last year, a controversial ranking system by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based advocacy group, found that the vast majority of the 1,430 education programs that prepare the nation’s K-12 teachers are mediocre. The system was immediately attacked by scores of universities, which questioned the methodology.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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