The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The big problems with the Obama administration’s new teacher-education regulations

Education Secretary John B. King Jr. speaks during the daily briefing at the White House on Sept. 29. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

The Obama administration recently published long-awaited regulations for programs that prepare new K-12 teachers.

The U.S. Education Department had attempted to do this several years ago, but that effort was notable for several controversies, one of them a suggestion that teacher-preparation programs be evaluated in part by the standardized test scores of the students being taught by program graduates. Now we have the final regulations — and critics of the original draft remain unsatisfied.

For one thing, the new regulations, as this story by my colleague Emma Brown explains, require states to issue annual ratings for teacher-prep programs, an effort, supporters say, to separate the successful programs from the failures. They still also require each state  to evaluate teacher-training programs based on student learning, but this time leaving it to the states to decide how to measure academic growth and how much it should weigh in an overall rating.  That means that the department will permit states to use test scores for evaluation — a method that is not used to evaluate any other professional preparation program.

There are other problems with the new regulations, as well, as explained in this post by Lauren Anderson and Ken Zeichner. Anderson is a professor and chair of the Education Department at Connecticut College. Zeichner is a professor of teacher education at the University of Washington at Seattle who has done extensive research on teaching and teacher education.

Obama administration releases long-awaited regulations for teacher preparation programs

By Lauren Anderson and Ken Zeichner

 Teacher preparation is shaping up to be the next frontier for entrepreneurs. Growing attention from federal and state policymakers and newly available capital from large philanthropic sources such as the Schusterman and Gates Foundations are attracting attention from entrepreneurs looking to break the lock that universities have on preparing teachers. — Stacey Childress, CEO, New Schools Venture Fund, 2016
How to put half of the institutions out of business? . . . The federal government thinks that tighter regulation of these institutions is the answer. — John Merrow, 2016

The new federal teacher-preparation regulations reveal much about how contemporary education reform “works” — and for whom. And given how the regulations are likely to work on teacher education in the coming few years, they should be cause for concern — both about the future of teacher education in the United States and the increasing penetration of education policymaking by private interests.

To be sure, while education is a state responsibility, some federal regulation is reasonable. Given that teacher-preparation programs receive funds from federal student aid programs, it makes sense for the federal government to expect that states will hold programs to certain standards, such as demonstrating responsiveness to local districts’ hiring needs, as well as graduates’ and employers’ feedback.

It’s likewise reasonable to expect that programs of all stripes will demonstrate not only commitment to continuous improvement but also evidence of progress along that path. In fact, these and similar expectations are already a part of some states’ monitoring of teacher-preparation programs.

Concerning the Content of the Regulations

Some aspects of the new regulations, however, are less reasonable, and are also inconsistent with the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). For example, the new regulations require that states hold teacher-education programs accountable for the achievement outcomes of their graduates’ students, an approach that many, including Presidents Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and Lily Eskelsen García of the National Education Association, have criticized and for which there is not a robust evidence base.

Indeed, in none of the professions that policymakers often claim teaching should emulate are programs held accountable in a corollary manner. Medical schools, for example, are not evaluated based on the health outcomes of their graduates’ patients, both because of methodological challenges inherent to establishing such linkages and because of accepted understanding about how complex the variables are that impact health, much like learning.

The new regulations also embody the same unreasonable (and unwise) label-and-punish mechanisms that were discredited under No Child Left Behind and are out of step with its successor ESSA.

And, as stated by both Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, and Rep. John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, the requirement for states to evaluate programs in particular ways and to group programs into categories of quality also appear to violate the Higher Education Act. It does this by dictating the form evaluation takes instead of leaving such decisions for states to make — we would hope — in collaboration with professional accrediting bodies.

Concerning connections to the ‘academy provision’ in ESSA

Other aspects of the new regulations are worrisome for how they conspire with a particular aspect of ESSA — the optional teacher-preparation academy provision in Title 2 — to “serve up” or unlock the field of teacher education for innovative disruption and corporate intervention.

This “academy provision” originated in the GREAT Act in 2011, which was developed by representatives of the New Schools Venture Fund and Relay Graduate School of Education and a few members of Congress. Its aims were written into ESSA such that Title 2 dollars can now be used to support the expansion of entrepreneurial “start-up programs” (i.e., teacher preparation “academies”). These will be exempted from many of the requirements that states will enforce for other programs — such as hiring faculty who hold advanced degrees or conduct research, holding students to certain credit hours or course sequences, or securing accreditation from the field’s accrediting bodies.

The provision is particularly critical to examine because, to date, new entrepreneurial programs have focused almost exclusively on preparing teachers to teach “other people’s children” in schools within high-poverty communities — not on preparing teachers for socioeconomically advantaged communities. Therefore, the entry of such programs into the field raises important questions not only about effectiveness but also about equity.

Advocates of the academy provision have argued that deregulation and a release from “unnecessary restrictions” on programs are necessary to stimulate innovation in teacher education. This is not the case; in fact, Title 2 of ESSA presents opportunity for states to invest in evidence-based approaches — such as residency, induction, and “Grow Your Own” programs — that can be used to address teacher shortages without lowering standards as the academy provision does. Investments by states in such approaches would be wise.

Conversely, the academy provision, which lowers standards for “start-ups,” introduces a mechanism by which venture philanthropists and other corporate actors can infuse competition into the teacher education “market” and supply programs to meet the need that will arise when existing college and university programs are closed by states enforcing the new regulations.

Thus, while the new regulations rhetorically position as equal parties, entrepreneurial alternative routes and university programs, their intersection with the academy provision evidently favors expedient expansion of the former and winnowing of the latter. Indeed, it’s this dynamic that accounts for early endorsement of the “academies” idea among corporate reform entities, a number of which were also involved in drafting the new regulations from which they now stand to benefit.

Rhetoric, relationships, and the regulations

These linkages between the regulations and ESSA’s academy provision are reflected in the rhetoric and references woven throughout recent announcements. Consider, for example, that the Department of Education’s under-1500-word press release mentions by name only two “preparation providers,” one of which is Relay Graduate School of Education.

Despite its unsubstantiated claims to effectiveness, recent rejection by the state Education Department in Pennsylvania and controversial methods, Relay receives praise from the Department of Education for offering programs that “require teachers to demonstrate evidence of effectiveness in classrooms before completion,” as if ensuring candidates’ effectiveness is what distinguishes Relay.

Rather what distinguishes Relay is that it is not a graduate school in any recognizable sense. It is precisely the kind of independent program enabled and encouraged under the academy provision. What also distinguishes Relay, but goes unmentioned in the written release, is that its co-founder and current president is, among other things, also founder and board chair of the same politically connected charter network, Uncommon Schools, that employed John B. King  Jr., the current education secretary, prior to his previous job in New York as state education commissioner.

Consider, too, how these linkages are reflected in the composition of those around the table at the live-streamed announcement of the regulations in Los Angeles on October 12. Notably absent were representatives from the field’s key professional organizations: National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), Council of Chief State School Officers (CSSO), and Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), all of whom soon after released their own responses.

Notably present, meanwhile, were Benjamin Riley, executive director of the Texas-based Deans for Impact group, and Ted Mitchell,  his former New Schools Venture Fund colleague and now undersecretary of education. Both were key players in the development of ESSA’s academy provision and its predecessor, the GREAT Act.

In light of their connection, it wasn’t surprising that Mitchell, roughly 30 minutes into the event, mentioned how the new regulations encourage states to “design mechanisms that will take student learning outcomes into account” and then followed with a quick handoff to Riley, “is that the right direction …. Ben?” Riley, unsurprised by the question, quickly affirmed the “direction” and then mentioned related “provisions of the new federal education bill [ESSA]” as a “sea change” for teacher education and higher education.

Besides King, Mitchell and Riley, other attendees included two deans, one from the hosting institution, USC’s Rossier School of Education, and the other from an historically black college and university. Both, along with Relay’s Dean, are among the 20 members of Deans for Impact, which Riley helped found and now leads. Remaining participants were a mix of educators, all affiliated with the host institution: a local superintendent who is also a doctoral student, a local teacher and principal who are also graduates and adjunct faculty, a clinical faculty member, and an education “entrepreneur and innovator” who holds a chair “Educational Entrepreneurship, Technology and Innovation” and whose career has included founding, co-founding and/or leading online education ventures.

As with named providers in the press release and invited participants at the live-streamed event, the choice of host reveals much about the federally favored future of teacher education, too. The University of Southern California’s Rossier education school is among just a handful of schools and colleges of education in research institutions without tenure-track or tenured members among its teacher-education concentration faculty, of which there are 60, 19 clinical and 41 adjunct. Faculty in its other three concentrations, meanwhile, are 26 percent, 38 percent and 39 percent tenure-track or tenured. It follows then, that despite the university setting, not one tenure-track or tenured teacher educator was featured among attendees at the announcement of the new regulations.

Evidence not evident, and other mixed messages

There are other telling — and troublingly mixed — messages at work here.

While the Department of Education has repeatedly emphasized the importance of evidence in using federal education dollars, it has promoted — in and around the new regulations — “innovations” absent a research base (or faculty configurations that support research).

For example, King has stated that “relevant, rigorous evidence must be an essential part of decision-making”; the new regulations themselves also emphasize the importance of “useful” data that can drive continuous improvement. And yet, the department has endorsed Relay, which has expanded from one campus to 13 despite no credible evidence to suggest it has met its goal of preparing teachers who can raise student achievement in urban districts.

And when during the live-streamed event Rossier is touted for increasing enrollments — from “75-80 student graduates a year” to “in the last  six years 2,700 around the country,” there is no indication given, or called for by King, Mitchell, or Riley, as to whether or how the production of “high-quality teachers at scale” is predicated on “rigorous” research and continuous improvement.

The most evident mixed message to us is woven throughout, wherever the rhetoric of respect for the work of teachers and teacher educators collides with real-time disregarding of their knowledge, marginalizing of their voices, and co-opting of their language and labor in the service of corporate reform.

Consider, for example, that Riley’s first comments during the live-streamed event stated what is common knowledge for those in teacher education and most any educational program — that we face a multiplicity of challenges and desire deeply, but often struggle to know, how students fare after graduation. He recounted learning this not from experience, having never been a teacher or teacher educator, but from the “privilege” of traveling the country visiting programs. It’s the kind of privilege that teacher educators, especially clinical ones, rarely receive and from which they would arguably glean more new insight than someone who has never engaged in their work. Indeed, they have been working, often amid fiscal and material scarcity, at solutions to such challenges for years.

To that very point, it was the clinical faculty member who offered some of the only pushback during the event, in response to Riley’s call for programs to “lead” by signing up to be “held accountable for student outcomes.” Speaking as a science educator, he reminded those present that quality data depends on “excellent assessment” and contrasted “authentic assessments … where kids get to do science” with “low-level” assessments.

He then gestured toward his former student, explained that he wanted, “to go on the record . . . all that she’s doing as a teacher, it’s hard to measure,” and invited her to “just list some of the things.” Her list included serving on the school’s professional development committee, as head of girls basketball, as assistant athletic director, as head of the science fair, and so on, all while teaching AP chemistry, sleeping five hours a night, and commuting an hour or more each morning and evening.

The list’s length led to some laughter and an assurance from Mitchell that the Department of Education wasn’t looking for a “one size fits all measure” but an understanding of “the total impact that teachers are having in their community, on their students, and their colleagues.”

For us, the exchange spoke volumes about the power dynamics at play in policy — and in the press event itself — and about long-standing debates concerning how to measure justly young people’s development and the labor that facilitates it. The exchange was also one that we recognized would not have occurred if not for the risky engagement of a seasoned teacher educator going off-script and “on the record” without the protection of tenure.

In response to the event-ending invitation for all present to offer one thing they would like to see addressed going forward, that same science educator mentioned the importance of exemplary candidates and early field experiences, and closed with an emphatic assertion of teaching as “an amazing profession.”

Riley, up next, responded immediately. “Yes, and . . .” he began, stitching his comments to the faculty member’s, and then breaking from them; he warned he’d be “a little controversial” and then stated that he “would love to see programs around the country reward the people who actually do the work of preparing future teachers as much as they do the people who do the research in the journals that I don’t read.”

Of course bragging — or even joking — about not reading research journals is a startling admission from the representative of an education deans organization. Even more striking is how the broader comment captures so much of what the incursion of private interests into education policy looks and sounds like to many teacher educators: co-optation of language and of labor.

For example, if any group has been advocating for teacher education and teaching, it has not been the corporate-funded reformers; it has been teacher educators — often from the margins of their own institutions, often up against those with fancy pedigrees and big bankrolls but limited understanding of or respect for the work teachers do.

This is why, even though aspects of the new regulations are reasonable, there is also real and reasonable cause for concern about which priorities — substance or scale, evidence or illusion, innovation or integrity, collaboration or co-optation — the regulations reflect and will refract throughout the system.

Put simply, increasing regulation for some while decreasing regulation for others is not just unreasonable. In this case, it’s cynical, dangerous and rationalized more by special interests than by sound judgments or policy precedent.

Getting real and reaching for reasonable

There is wide variation in quality among all types of teacher education programs and ongoing improvement of all programs is needed. That said, the new federal regulations will not bring us where we need to go. We can promote innovation and reasonable, high standards for all programs; it’s possible if we allow states and accrediting bodies, with real involvement of educators, to engage in a process that has professional integrity, rather than one hijacked by educational entrepreneurs who know little of the work.

We need a sincere federal investment in program improvement, and a genuine discussion of different policy options. We don’t need a simplistic, corporate reform-serving approach that encourages — precipitates even — the closure of some programs and the funding of more nimble “start-up” ventures with lower standards.

We won’t benefit from a public and policy discourse that simply ignores the long tradition of critique and reform within teacher education, including the work of scholars such as John Goodlad, Linda Darling-Hammond, Christine Sleeter, and Peter Murrell, and organizations such as the Holmes Group and the National Association of Multicultural Education, and that frames the concerned responses of teacher educators as simply knee-jerk and “anxious about needed changes . . . in a field that has not made progress in a long time.”

If anything, such an approach and discourse only take us further from the promise of supporting accomplished teaching practice.