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Education Secretary Arne Duncan Unveils Proposal Giving Responsibility to States to Identify Weak Teacher-Preparation Programs

Washington, D.C. — Teacher-preparation programs should be judged based on the academic growth of the students being taught by their graduates.

That is the crux of a proposal unveiled by the Obama administration in an attempt to identify and support effective preparation programs and, conversely, to weed out weak programs that don’t improve.

“We don’t do enough to identify those (programs) that are not succeeding and help them get better or intervene so that they no longer produce teachers for our children,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in releasing the proposal during a recent panel discussion titled “A New Approach to Teacher Education Reform and Improvement.”

The discussion was held on Friday by Education Sector, an independent education policy think tank.

The Obama administration’s proposal calls for state level accountability systems to track on a program-by-program basis how well students are doing under teachers that graduated from a given teacher-preparation program.

In an effort to produce more minority teachers, the plan also calls for $40 million to fund the Augustus F. Hawkins Centers of Excellence program, which was authorized by Congress in 2008 but never funded. Through the program, the proposal would provide competitive grants to teacher-preparation programs at minority serving institutions or MSIs in partnerships with other institutions of higher learning.

The proposal also calls for using a $185 million state teacher preparation grant to reform the $110 million TEACH grant program, renaming it as the “Presidential Teaching Fellows” program and awarding the program’s $10,000 scholarships only to final-year students as opposed to students who are earlier in their post-secondary careers and may switch career plans before they graduate.

The report laments that roughly 80 percent of TEACH grant scholarship recipients who aren’t expected to teach will have to repay their grants with interest, thus turning the TEACH Grant program into a student loan program. The proposal also states that TEACH Grant scholarships are awarded to students irrespective of the quality of the program in which they enroll, whereas Presidential Teaching Fellows would only be allowed to enroll in high-quality programs.

While many of the proposal’s details regarding accountability for teacher-preparation programs have yet to be worked out, the proposal drew varying degrees of support from stakeholders, including co-panelists Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association; and Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America, an alternative teacher preparation program that has been criticized by NEA as taking away jobs from teachers.

Sharon Robinson, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, said the proposal signifies that it’s time for higher education leaders to start paying more attention to how well their graduates perform once they leave campus.

“It’s time to roll up your shirt sleeves and start trying to get those accountability systems developed at the state level,” Robinson said in an interview after she participated in a separate panel discussion at the Ed Sector event.

Under existing federal law, states already are supposed to work to identify weak teacher-preparation programs, but seldom do, the report states.

“Despite requirements under the Higher Education Act that states identify and improve low-performing programs, few states hold programs to any meaningful standard of quality,” the Obama administration’s proposal reports.

In the most recent year for which data is available, according to the proposal, states identified only 37 low-performing programs at more than 1,400 institutions of higher education that prepare teachers — and 39 states didn’t identify any low-performing programs at all.

“Over the last dozen years, 27 states have never identified a single low-performing program,” the proposal states.

The proposal also says that existing reporting and accountability requirements are onerous and “not based on meaningful indicators of program effectiveness.”

“Rather than focus on measures that matter most for each program, institutions and states are asked to fill out a questionnaire with 440 fields heavily focused on program inputs as opposed to outcomes,” the proposal says.

Starting this fall and winter, the report states, the Department of Education will work with various stakeholders to “streamline regulations that reduce the reporting burden of these requirements and focus instead on the best measures of program impact.”

The outcome-based measures fall into three categories: student growth, job placement and retention rates and surveys of program participants and their principals on how well graduates were prepared for the first years of their teacher experience.

Robinson said she objects to the “wiping out of the TEACH grants” for the new Presidential Teaching Fellows program.

“We think the teach grant can be improved upon to focus more on the top end of the talent pool,” Robinson said. “What the Department (of Education) is proposing is taking it away as a recruitment tool. We’re not buying it.”

But she said her organization supports holding teacher-preparation programs accountable and the funding of the Hawkins centers of excellence.

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