Teachers' trainers must make the grade, too
Texas will hold programs accountable for graduates’ success
By ERICKA MELLON
Nov. 2, 2009, 11:07AM
Texas is among the first states to toughen its standards for colleges of education and other teacher-training programs amid criticism that too many are “cash cows” that produce weak instructors.
Under a proposed new rating system, the programs would be held accountable for their graduates' effectiveness on the job — especially regarding student achievement. Teacher programs that repeatedly fall short of the standards could lose their state accreditation.
“Those programs that are doing poorly — and the result is poor teachers — ought to get sanctioned,” said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who authored the bill this year requiring the more rigorous accreditation system.
The State Board for Educator Certification gave initial approval to the rules last month and is expected to finalize them in February.
The biggest change to the accrediting rules — and potentially the most controversial — involves linking a teacher's ability to improve student test scores to that teacher's training. In theory, the state, which still is working on a formula and a long-range data system, should be able to determine which programs produce graduates whose students make the biggest — or smallest — gains.
“The idea that we ought to be preparing teachers that help students learn is a reasonable notion,” said Doug Palmer, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University. “But the challenge is to do it in a thoughtful manner, and I think it's going to be incredibly challenging.”
The Houston Independent School District has used student test scores to determine which teachers deserve bonuses for the past few years, but it has yet to tie that data to the teachers' training.
The changes to Texas' accrediting system come as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is reiterating long-standing criticisms of teacher training. In a speech late last month, Duncan said universities have been using schools of education as “cash cows” that generate profits for other departments. He added that “many if not most” of the nation's education schools are doing a “mediocre job.”
Karen Loonam, a Texas Education Agency official who deals with accreditation, took issue with Duncan's widespread derision.
“We have some excellent programs in the state,” she said. “We have a few that need some assistance.”
Texas has 177 educator-preparation programs. They are run by different providers — universities, community colleges, school districts, for-profit companies — and their standards vary. A graduate student may be enrolled for a year, while some alternative certification programs turn out teachers in a few months.
“It's an accountability system that we need because there are so many of these private companies that say that their teachers are doing well,” said Sharon Lekawski, senior manager of HISD's alternative teacher certification program. “We're going to know now if they really are.”
In 15 or so years, Loonam said, she does not recall the state revoking the accreditation of any teacher-training program, though it has provided assistance to some.
Until now, the state has based accreditation on just one factor: the performance of teachers-to-be on the state's written certification exam.
To Shapiro, a former teacher, that system was too narrow. The new one will consist of four standards. “Someone could do well on a test but go into the classroom and just be mediocre at best,” she said.
What new rules entail
In the new rating system, the percentage of teacher-candidates who must pass the certification exam will grow gradually from 70 percent this year to 80 percent for the 2011-12 academic year. Like before, the programs will be judged on the passing rates of all students and of various gender and ethnicity groups.
The programs also will get graded on how often and how well they follow up with teachers during their first year on the job. In addition, school principals will get to weigh in on the programs through evaluations of the new teachers they hire.
Evaluations were supposed to be included in the old accreditation system, but a 2003 opinion from state Attorney General Greg Abbott said teacher evaluations were confidential. This time, the state plans to create a survey for principals that should be in line with state law, Loonam said.
Bob Wimpelberg, dean of the University of Houston's College of Education, said the school is used to accountability; it is one of a dozen Texas programs approved by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.
“Who really matters to us is our customer, and our customer is public school districts,” he said. “We stay in touch with them regularly. We are attuned to what the schools want and need.”
Ed Fuller, a University of Texas researcher who has studied teacher-preparation programs, said the best ones send participants into schools to observe and practice their skills as much as possible.
“I've heard teachers say, ‘I chose this program because it was the cheapest and fastest way to get into teaching,'” Fuller said. “We've got lots of research that says the more preparation you have, the more effective teacher you're going to be — assuming it's good preparation.”