Wednesday, October 05, 2011

A Push to Improve Teachers' Colleges

October 1, 2011

The Obama administration announced a new $185 million competition Friday that would reward colleges for producing teachers whose students perform well on standardized tests.

The competition would require states to provide data linking collegiate teaching programs inside their borders to the test scores of their graduates' students. Under the proposal, to be eligible for the money, states would have to ratchet up teacher-licensing exams and close persistently low-performing teacher-training programs.

The competition is part of the administration's planned broad overhaul of teachers' colleges of education, which have come under attack recently for failing to properly train teachers.

In a news conference Friday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted that that nearly two-thirds of new teachers report feeling unprepared to run classes. "What if 62% of our new doctors felt unprepared to practice medicine?" said Mr. Duncan, adding that "the status quo is unacceptable."

In a sign of consensus among often warring camps in education, the administration's proposal received vocal support from the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, as well as from Teach For America, a Peace Corps-like nonprofit that inspires many of the nation's top college graduates to commit to inner-city teaching stints.

"NEA has long championed approaches that support rigorous entry into the profession of teaching," NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said in a statement said.

The prospect of using student test scores to grade the colleges that trained their teachers doesn't sit well with one teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers. "At the same time that the validity of using standardized tests as the ultimate measure of performance is being widely questioned, the U.S. Department of Education appears to be putting its foot on the accelerator by calling for yet another use for tests," AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.

Evidence is mounting that teacher quality is the biggest in-school determinant of student achievement. Yet the nation's colleges of education are a patchwork of programs that vary in quality. Each state sets its own admissions, graduation and licensing requirements.

Also problematic is that the profession isn't attracting many of the nation's best students. One recent study found that only 23% of teachers come from the top third of college graduates.

Washington is seeking to intensify pressure on colleges to tighten admissions standards, bolster curricula and produce greater numbers of high-quality math and science teachers. Mr. Duncan said Friday that funding for the new program would be used in part to finance scholarships for high-performing education majors in exchange for three years of teaching in high-need schools. That funding would also be used to support schools with a proven record of producing high-quality minority teachers.

In the news conference, Mr. Duncan framed the effort as vital to the future economic well being of America. "We have to educate our way to a better economy," he said.

While introducing the new program, Mr. Duncan said his department would reduce the reporting burden on colleges of education. He said the Education Department was working to reduce the 440 questions on an evaluation form it requires states to complete about teaching programs.

Recruiting and training a strong teaching force has been a main priority of Mr. Duncan, and he has chided teacher-prep programs for their failure to produce high-quality instructors.

The U.S. requires states to identify low-performing teacher-prep programs. But in the past 12 years, 27 states haven't found even one program lacking in quality, Mr. Duncan said.

As part of the package of overhauls unveiled Friday, the administration plans to evaluate the teacher-college programs on whether their graduates are hired, particularly in shortage areas such as math and science.

The Education Department plans to ask Congress to approve its proposal, but ultimately doesn't need lawmakers to impose requirements on colleges.

A senior administration officer said the DOE had the authority to mandate such reporting from any institution that participates in federal financial-aid programs.

Write to Stephanie Banchero at and Kevin Helliker at

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