Robert C. Pianta is the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.
As if on cue, teacher preparation organizations, college and university education schools, and teachers unions are protesting proposed federal regulations for assessing the quality and impact of teacher preparation programs.
Over the past month, my e-mail inbox has been filled with a stream of increasingly dire pleas to join the chorus. Delayed for more than a year by a firestorm of protest, the latest round of proposed regulations is subject to the same criticisms as the previous one. The primary complaints: The regulations are burdensome and would be expensive to implement; they devalue the work of graduates who teach in non-tested grades and subjects such as special education, music or art; and they rely on state test scores that lack validity as measures of a teacher’s impact. The newest critiques also go further, claiming that the regulations would cause teacher education programs to push graduates away from teaching in more challenging schools.
I am embarrassed that professionals responsible for the preparation of teachers seem to oppose so adamantly efforts to evaluate the competence of the workforce they produce. As a scholar who works in areas related to the assessment and improvement of teaching, as an educator and as a dean of a school of education with a teacher preparation program, I worry that, rather than recognizing an opportunity for real leadership, my profession has reached a new low in the teacher wars. The response to the proposed regulations is a failure to recognize our responsibility to the public and to our own goals and values.
Don’t those of us who work in teacher preparation believe and hope that graduates of our programs are effective? Do we not intend for our graduates to be capable of teaching well, even in tough circumstances or to students whose backgrounds and experiences vary? I would bet that every admissions brochure to every teacher preparation program in the country includes those aims and aspirations. What happened to our commitment and responsibility to back up those claims? Why aren’t we leading this charge?
When the idea of holding teacher preparation programs accountable was floated by the Obama administration more than a year ago, I agreed in concept but opposed the approach being considered because it was so rigid. That proposal relied too heavily on value-added models of student learning (which attempt to isolate the effect individual teachers have on their students’ test results), failed to note that nearly half of teachers teach in non-tested subjects or grades, and did not apply the same criteria to alternative preparation programs such as Teach for America. This first foray attracted a lot of fire and was tabled, but it was a signal to teacher preparation programs of what was to come. Would we take responsibility for our performance or stand by and wait for some other entity to force us, then play the victim? My inbox illustrates how we responded. Here we are more than a year later and the rhetoric is at full throttle. And having read those e-mails, I wonder if opponents have even read the Education Department’s proposals.
The proposed regulations would require each state to develop measurements — and systems for collecting and reporting them — to assess the performance of new and early career teachers, but these metrics would not have consequences for institutions receiving federal support until 2020. States would be required to convene stakeholders and define how to gauge teachers’ influence on student learning, which might lead to assessments such as surveys, observations, achievement tests and, yes, even value-added scores from state tests. What’s so unreasonable about this?
Opponents of the regulations have effectively co-opted the public’s broad dissatisfaction with over-testing, aiming their critiques squarely at the inadequacies of these tests. That may be a fair concern, but the proposed regulations clearly state that value-added assessment is only one option among many. On the other side of the issue, some worry that the regulations are so flexible that they are unlikely to lead to improvements in teacher preparation, because states will design systems with no real validity in discriminating between effective and ineffective early career teachers.
We can argue all day long about measures, formulas and funds. But as professionals preparing teachers, we cannot in good conscience claim that our programs make a difference if we are not willing to tackle these thorny challenges head on. What might such efforts look like? We could convene coalitions of teacher preparation programs to engage state education officials on how to make data accessible. We could use the flexibility afforded by these new regulations to identify and develop assessments that work for our program goals. We could work together to pilot new and better assessments, or partner with districts that hire our graduates, to improve procedures and operations.
Regardless of which path we choose, we must take responsibility for both our mission and its outcomes — and work to solve our problems rather than complain about them.