The U.S. Education Department is expected soon to issue new regulations for teacher preparation programs in colleges and universities in what will be its second attempt to shape the  way these programs are operated. The question is whether it has learned anything from the botched attempt it made in 2012 to write new regulations for these programs.

The previous effort was marked by several controversies. One involved the way the Obama administration wanted to actually evaluate these programs:  in large part though the standardized test scores of K-12 students being taught by their graduates. If it seems as if that is a rather narrow, unfair way to determine the quality of a program, that’s because it is. And, as part of this  same vision,  financial aid to students in these programs would not be based entirely on need but, rather, would also be linked to test scores. Furthermore, the negotiating team failed to include representatives from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education or  the American Council of Education, the nonprofit organization that represents presidents and chancellors of colleges and universities.

After the collapse of those negotiations, the Education Department took the job in-house and has been developing the regulations “with input from stakeholders and organizations that do this work,” according to department spokeswoman Dorie Nolt. She didn’t list the stakeholders and organizations.  Early this year the department said the draft regulations would be released in the summer, but that didn’t happen. Nolt said late last month that they would be forthcoming in the next few weeks.

Here is a post about this issue and about what the Education Department should do with this regulations. It was written by  Donald E. Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University.

By Donald E. Heller

Sometime this fall, the U.S. Department of Education is expected to issue new regulations for Title II of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), which governs teacher preparation programs in colleges and universities around the country.

While the states have the responsibility for licensing teacher preparation programs, along with licensing the graduates of those programs, the federal government – through Title II – can influence the process in a number of ways.  One is by offering financial assistance to states to help them strengthen teacher preparation programs – assistance that can come with strings attached, similar to what the department has done in the Race to the Top and First in the World grant programs.

A second way the federal government can influence teacher preparation programs is through the regulations over the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants.  This program provides annual grants of up to $4,000 to students planning on becoming teachers and after graduating working in high-need fields in schools with high proportions of low-income students.  Through the regulatory process the department can determine which teacher preparation programs would be eligible to award TEACH Grants.

The Department of Education’s negotiated rule-making process for Title II was conducted in 2012 with representatives of the many constituents with a stake in the regulations, including education schools, teachers’ unions, state officials, alternative certification programs (such as Teach for America), accrediting agencies, and financial aid administrators.  However, the review panel the department formed to revise the existing regulations was unable to reach consensus on what the new regulations should look like.  This left it up to the department to issue regulations on its own.

Nobody in the world of teacher preparation would argue against reasonable regulations that would help ensure that our nation’s schools are staffed with well-trained teachers who can meet the needs of all learners.  But reasonable regulations must be grounded in research that ties specific practices in training teachers to desired outcomes.  And these regulations must not impose an undue burden on institutions that already suffer from a heavy load of reporting requirements, including those from the states, accrediting agencies, and others.

While we will not know until the department issues the Title II regulations exactly what they will include, there are indications that an important component will be the use of Value Added Modeling for assessing teacher preparation programs.  Value Added Modeling (VAM) is a statistical technique that uses test scores, adjusted for various student characteristics, to measure how much students learn.

On paper, it may sound like it would make sense to use this technique to evaluate teachers, and in turn, evaluate the teacher preparation programs at which they are trained.  But just as with so many other aspects of public policy, the devil here is in the details.  While students’ test scores may seem like a reasonable way to assess teachers, the reality is that there are many variables that affect student achievement, and VAM techniques cannot adequately control for all of them – at least not given the current state-of-the-art in VAM methodology.

No less an authority than the American Statistical Association (ASA), the nation’s leading professional association on the subject of statistics in research and practice, addressed the use of value-added models in teacher assessment in a statement earlier this year.   In its statement, the ASA said:

Research on VAMs has been fairly consistent that aspects of educational effectiveness that are measurable and within teacher control represent a small part of the total variation in student test scores or growth; most estimates in the literature attribute between 1% and 14% of the total variability to teachers. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.

If it is a leap to assess teachers based on VAM scores, given these limitations, it is even a bigger leap to use them to evaluate the programs at which those teachers were trained.  Just as student performance is a function of many factors beyond how good a teacher is, teacher performance reflects much more than just how well they were trained.  These other factors that affect teacher performance include, but are not limited to: 1) years of experience; 2) resources of the district and school in which they work; 3) ongoing education (advanced degrees); 4) in-service professional development opportunities; and 5) support from administrators.  No state test of student achievement of which I am aware has been validated as an instrument for assessing teacher performance, never mind as one for evaluating teacher preparation programs.

The Department of Education has also hinted that it will require teacher preparation programs to report data on the employment of their graduates.  While I and my fellow education deans hope that every one of our graduates will be placed in meaningful employment positions, we are largely at the mercy of the labor markets and the greater economic conditions facing each of our states and the nation as a whole.

While we are able to gather some data from our state Department of Education about teacher placement (and this capacity varies from state to state), over a third of our recent graduates at Michigan State University are taking teaching positions beyond the borders of our state, largely because of a lack of employment opportunities in public schools in our state.  Data from the U.S. Department of Education show that more than 20 percent of all teachers work in states different from that of their initial teacher licensure. It would impose a large burden on education schools to be required to track all of their graduates, no matter where they teach across the United States.

My colleagues and I who head education schools look forward to working with the Department of Education on developing regulations that ensure that the students we train are prepared for lifelong careers as educators.  We encourage the department to base these regulations on the research that has been conducted on teacher education.  And while nobody wants more red tape; if we are to see additional reporting requirements, we would like to see requirements that actually measure the value of teacher preparation programs.