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Esther J. Cepeda: Teacher-prep programs need tougher admissions standards

Published October 20, 2016 10:15 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

CHICAGO • After years of negotiations and input from education interest groups, teachers and their unions, the U.S. Department of Education recently released its revised Teacher Preparation Regulations, designed to help ensure that students get the best new teachers possible.

The idea is that if teacher-preparation programs transparently report on a variety of performance metrics — such as placement and retention rates of teachers in their first three years in the classroom (including in high-needs schools) as well as feedback from new teachers and their employers on the effectiveness of their training — the data will help improve the efficacy of these programs.

And there's no question that they need improvement.

In 2013, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) put out a seminal report that found only 10 percent of 1,200 teacher-preparation programs nationwide were adequately training people to succeed in the classroom. More recently, a 2015 NCTQ report found that standards for training new teachers are inconsistent — even within the same prep programs.

After investigating 13 institutions that offered both undergraduate and graduate degrees in education, the NCTQ found that even on the same campus, some programs allow certain students to graduate with glaring omissions in their training, such as not taking a single course in classroom management or introductory special ed.

Gathering and publishing more data may eventually push teacher-prep programs to provide more rigorous core-subject knowledge and pedagogy training. What is less clear, however, is whether one key provision of the regulations — judging programs based on the learning outcomes of students who are taught by graduates of those programs — can do what it promises: improve the quality of new teachers.

It's a marvelous idea, obviously. But it doesn't take into account that any given student is an accumulation of good or bad learning and study habits that have been hardwired since birth through whatever grade a teacher happens to teach.

If new teachers land jobs at wealthy schools with children who have been groomed for college since they were in utero, then high student performance makes it look as though these teachers are gifted educators who came from rigorous and successful teacher-prep programs.

But if a new teacher ends up in a district that has a wide range of student achievement due to socioeconomic factors, then, just based on student performance, he or she may unfairly look like a weak teacher from a poor program.

And though the guidance doesn't say that student-learning outcomes must be illustrated through test scores, it's easy to imagine states cheaply resorting to using them.

In a statement, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten remarked: "The final regulations could harm students who would benefit the most from consistent, high-quality standards for teacher-preparation programs. ... [They] will punish teacher-prep programs whose graduates go on to teach in our highest-needs schools, most often those with high concentrations of students who live in poverty and English-language learners — the exact opposite strategy of what we need."

Even worse is that the final regulations left out more stringent admission standards.

According to NCTQ President Kate Walsh, higher college admission standards were not included because of institutions' concerns that raising standards would impact diversity. "Not only is this common complaint denigrating to African-American and Hispanic students — implying that a teaching career is only available to them if standards are kept intolerably low — but the consequence of an open-door policy sounds a death knell for programs' ability to raise the rigor and quality of instruction," she wrote on the NCTQ website.

I couldn't agree more. The fact is that nothing impacts student achievement as much as teacher quality. But diversity — certainly a worthy and important goal for teacher ranks — has been politicized and overprioritized in education policy-making circles.

In an interview, Walsh told me, "Not doing something about standards risks perpetuating a cycle of underperformance among minorities. Some people made the decision that having teachers look like students is sufficient to boost student achievement, and there's very little evidence to support that. Teacher diversity is important to minority kids' future — it's just not the most important thing."

Highly competent teachers are the most significant factor in diverse learners experiencing better educational outcomes. The new regulations provide an excellent start toward this goal. But until we make the leap to more demanding admission standards for teacher-prep programs, K-12 students with the biggest need for exceptionally knowledgeable and well-trained teachers will remain left behind.

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.




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