The U.S. Education Department published regulations Wednesday governing programs that prepare new K-12 teachers, a long-delayed effort meant to ensure that graduates emerge ready for the nation’s classrooms.
The new regulations, at least five years in the making, require each state to issue annual ratings for teacher-prep programs within their borders. The ratings aim to serve as a snapshot of how novice educators perform after graduation, offering prospective teachers and school district recruiters a more accurate picture of which programs are successful at producing strong educators and which are not.
Obama administration officials and reform-minded advocacy groups also hope the ratings prod training programs — long criticized as cash cows for universities that produce ill-prepared candidates — to improve.
“The system we have for training teachers lacks rigor, is out of step with the times, and is given to extreme grade inflation that leaves teachers unprepared and their future students at risk,” former education secretary Arne Duncan wrote this month in an open letter to U.S. college presidents. Duncan stepped down in 2015, four years after starting the Obama administration’s effort to overhaul teacher-prep regulations.
Consequences for poorly rated training programs are still years away, well into the next president’s administration. Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality — a nonprofit that has led the push for teacher-prep reform — said neither major-party candidate has signaled an interest in teacher preparation, and it’s unclear how much energy the Education Department will devote to the issue in the future.
But Walsh said the new regulations are important: “I see it as a tremendous opportunity because at no other point in the history of teacher education in the United States has the field been forced to ask itself if it is really adding value, and if not, what it needs to do to change.”
The effort proceeded more slowly than the current administration anticipated, in part because of deep divisions about the role of standardized test scores in gauging the effectiveness of a new teacher — and thus the effectiveness of the training program that teacher attended.
The Education Department previously pushed for a “significant part” of ratings to come from the performance of recent graduates’ students, as measured by those students’ standardized test scores and other measures of achievement. In theory, the agency argued, a strong teacher training program should produce new teachers whose students demonstrate progress on standardized tests.
But that proposal generated a storm of criticism. It was released in 2014 amid a growing backlash against overtesting in the nation’s public schools. Teachers unions argued that test scores are often arbitrary and are an unfair metric for judging effectiveness. The American Council on Education, an association of colleges and universities, and others argued that the administration was overreaching its authority.
In the regulations, the Education Department still requires states to judge teacher training programs based on whether students are learning. But the agency pulled back from its emphasis on standardized testing as an essential measure of student achievement: The new regulations leave it up to states to decide how to measure student learning and how much that variable should count toward an overall rating.
The final regulations leave intact other key pieces of the administration’s initial proposal: Ratings must include surveys of graduates and employers as well as data on how many of the program’s alumni get hired into their chosen fields and how long they stay in their jobs.
The new requirements apply to both traditional programs based at universities and alternative-certification routes, such as Teach for America.
The revisions did not mollify critics: Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said they amounted to minor tweaks that didn’t change an underlying “ludicrous” concept that training programs should be evaluated according to the academic performance of their graduates’ students.
“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 strategy of what we need,” Weingarten said in a statement.
Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education said that the Education Department had dramatically underestimated the cost of complying with the rules. In 2014, California estimated that it would cost $230 million to get the system up and running and another $485 million each year to maintain; the department estimated the cost over the next decade to average out to just $27 million per year, for the entire nation.
“Teacher quality is absolutely critical to improving student performance in the classroom. The central question, however, is whether or not these regulations will help — and the answer is no,” Hartle said. “They are costly, complex, burdensome and based on only tenuous evidence that they will work.”
Some education school deans have embraced the new rules, saying they will create a way for them to get information they desperately want from school districts about the performance of their alumni.
“It’s extraordinarily useful to us because we really do want to assess the quality of our graduates’ work,” said Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. “We’ve been seeking this information for a long time, but it’s hard to get.”
States must rate programs “low-performing,” “at-risk,” or “effective”; those rated less than effective for two out of any three years will be stripped of their eligibility for federal Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, or TEACH, grants — up to $4,000 a year for aspiring teachers who commit to working in high-needs schools after graduation.
States must introduce ratings on a pilot basis in the 2017-2018 school year, but the first year a program could lose access to TEACH grants would be 2021-2022. Approximately 30,000 students receive TEACH grants each year, compared with more than 400,000 enrolled in traditional and alternative certification programs.
This story has been updated.