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Why the ‘GREAT Teachers and Principals Act’ is not great

(Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said Jonathan Schorr worked at the White House. He works at the Education Department.)

Legislation in Congress called the GREAT Teachers and Principals Act sounds good but is anything but great in its proposal for new educator preparation programs, according to this post by Kenneth Zeichner, the Boeing Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Washington, a former vice president and current fellow of the American Educational Research Association, and a member of the National Academy of Education. He is also a  former elementary teacher and Professor and former associate dean of teacher education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has done extensive research on teaching and teacher education.

By Kenneth Zeichner

During the last few years, The New Schools Venture Fund (NSVF), a major private funder of K-12 charter schools, has been intensely involved in creating and promoting a bill (the GREAT Act) in the U.S. Congress. This bill, if passed, would lead to the establishment of teacher and principal preparation programs that would not be subject to the same level of accountability as other state-approved programs. The bill is a part of a broader movement to disrupt the current system of college and university teacher education and replace it with deregulation, competition, and a market economy.

There is a need for greater transparency of these private efforts to influence public policy in teacher education so that the consequences of the proposed legislation can be more clearly understood, discussed, and debated. Discussion and debate of public policy issues are cornerstones of a healthy democratic society. There is reason to believe that the adoption of the GREAT Act would only worsen the current inequitable distribution of teachers where the least prepared and least experienced teachers are often assigned to teach our most vulnerable students.

We should be concerned over the lack of public discussion about the assumptions underlying the proposed legislation for it would have a major impact on how teachers and principals are prepared.  The questions of whether or not deregulation, competition and markets are the ways to improve teacher education, how to assess the quality of teaching and teacher education programs, and what the peer-reviewed research shows about the impact of different pathways into teaching – these are all matters that remain unsettled among serious scholars. They warrant trenchant public discussion and debate.

NSVF was founded in 1998 by social entrepreneur Kim Smith and venture capitalists John Doerr and Brook Byers. According to its 2012 annual report NSVF operates 331 charter schools that enroll 130,500 students (83 percent of whom are low income). If these schools were put together they would make up one of the largest 20 districts in the United States. To date, 350,000 students have been taught by teachers trained in NSVF ventures. Its K-12 ventures include ASPIRE, the Achievement Network, KIPP, MATCH, Rocketship, Uncommon Schools and the Academy for Urban School Leadership.

Although NSVF’s role in teacher education has been relatively minor to date, it has provided funding to a number of the most visible entrepreneurial programs including Teach For America (TFA), The New Teacher Project (TNTP), Relay Graduate School of Education (RGSE), the Urban Teacher Center, and MATCH Teacher Residency. The goal of NSVF’s investments has been to promote deregulation and privatization in K-12 and in teacher education so that there will be opportunities for new entrepreneur-developed programs to emerge in what would be a market economy.

In March 2011, four people came together in Washington D.C. with several sympathetic legislators to discuss ways to further the deregulation of teacher education: Norm Atkins, the founder of RGSE; Tim Knowles, the director of the Urban Education Institute in Chicago; and Julie Mikuta and Ben Riley of the NSVF.

The result of these conversations was a bi-partisan legislative proposal in the Senate and in the House. This bill, the “Growing Excellent Achievement Training Academies for Teachers and Principals Act” (GREAT Act) would establish state-based competitive grant programs to create charter teacher and principal preparation programs called academies that would free of many of the state regulations that are used to monitor the quality of traditional preparation programs.

In June of 2011, NSVF circulated a letter seeking endorsements for the bill. Among those who signed the letter are entrepreneurial organizations, some of which have been financially supported by NSVF (e.g., KIPP, TFA TNTP, MATCH, RGSE). Other backers included individuals and advocacy groups such as Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform. While this bill was introduced in the 112th Congress, it was not enacted.

On May 23rd, 2013, the GREAT Act was reintroduced and was included in Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization proposals in both chambers. The teacher preparation programs that would result from passage of the GREAT Act would be required to prepare teachers to serve in “high-needs” areas and hard-to-staff subjects. They would also have to include the requirement that program completion be based on candidates’ abilities to improve student academic achievement. Another key element of the proposed bill is that states and state authorizers of the charter programs must agree to enable these programs to be free of “unnecessary input-based regulations,” meaning those that currently exist and apply to university-based programs. The NSVF continues to promote the GREAT Act and to add to its list of supporters.

While on the surface, requiring programs to ensure that its graduates can raise students’ achievement may seem desirable, as educator Mike Rose has pointed out, this narrow way of defining success masks many potential complexities and may actually serve to widen opportunity gaps. For example,

You can prep students for a standardized test, get a bump in scores, yet not be providing a very good education. The end result is the replication of a troubling pattern in American schooling: poor kids get an education of skills and routine, a lower-tier education, while students in more affluent districts get a robust course of study.

Advocates of the GREAT Act have downplayed the significance of the legislation, but it has major ramifications for American education. States that choose to participate will have to lower teacher education accountability requirements for those programs that become academies.

It is clear that NSVF is working to position its own current and future ventures in teacher education as the prototypes to be scaled up when the GREAT Act passes. In 2012, a media blitz kicked off promoting RGSE. Jonathan Schorr, a former NSVF staffer, now a U.S. Education Department communications specialist, published an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in which RGSE is featured as the future for the field. A 2012 College Board report asserted with regard to the RGSE:

The vision is to keep expanding so that in a decade from now, 10,000 teachers in cities around the country are enrolled in an umbrella of Relays.

Additional articles appeared that same year in The New York Times, and Education Next asserting that RGSE is bold and innovative.  Recently, the program was promoted on American Radio Works.  Yet another indication of NSVF’s efforts to position its own ventures for expansion after the passage of the GREAT Act and its adoption by states is its “Learning to Teach Entrepreneur in Residence Program” in partnership with TFA. This program will fund two potential entrepreneurs or teams of entrepreneurs to spend six to ten months  “laying the groundwork for a new organization that will prepare teachers for schools in low income communities.” These residents will be mentored by staff in NSVF-funded programs such as TFA, and RGSE.

The self-declaration of these entrepreneur developed programs like the RGSE as innovative and pioneering is without peer-reviewed empirical support beyond individual anecdotes. Saying something over and over again does not make it true. Even one of their most enthusiastic supporters, Jonathan Schorr, concluded in 2012 that “it is too soon to call these programs a success.” The so-called accomplishments of competition and markets in K-12 education do not bode well for the assertion that this approach will improve teacher education.

Like the efforts to dilute the meaning of highly qualified teachers in No Child Left Behind, the growth of these programs will further fuel the situation where the least qualified and most inexperienced teachers are teaching the neediest students.

Instead of accepting the status quo as permanent by increasing the supply of under-prepared and inexperienced, and short-term teachers in high-poverty schools, we should seek to eliminate this situation. A more ethical and empirically warranted course of action would include investing in strengthening the college and university system of teacher education as has been done in leading education systems in the world.  It would also include greater incentives for fully certified, and experienced, teachers to work for more than a few years in schools attended primarily by students living in poverty. Finally, it would make sure the public resources in these schools and communities are comparable to those in wealthier communities.

Rushing into the expansion of these allegedly innovative programs based on an effective marketing campaign and behind-the-scenes political maneuvering without thorough public scrutiny of the evidence is irresponsible. It uses children living in poverty as guinea pigs for the “entrepreneurial revolution” in teacher education. A democratic society cannot tolerate this behavior.