Why Teacher Colleges Are So Scared of ESSA

To hear the traditional teacher-training establishment tell it, the  Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, will lower standards for the teaching profession. The No Child Left Behind replacement passed by Congress, its leaders warn, contains a provision that will  open the floodgates to shoddy programs that will crank out bad teachers. But they lack even the most basic data to make their case—in large part because they have  lobbied so furiously against efforts to get them to collect any meaningful data about their performance. By contrast, backers of the new approach are armed with reams of data showing their teachers deliver. Under the Great Teaching and Leading for Great Schools Act, states can choose to allow new,  degree-granting teacher-training “academies” to operate outside of traditional schools of education and unconstrained by states’ teacher prep rules. In order to graduate, candidates would have to show they propel academic gains among their students. Chief among the programs envisioned by the new law’s proponents is the  Relay Graduate School of Education, founded in 2011. Now with campuses in eight locations, the school was  created in response to a dearth of teachers trained in strategies proven effective in high-poverty schools. Relay places a much greater emphasis on classroom practice than most traditional education programs. While its teaching candidates carry out their residencies, they are taught not by academics but by master teachers. Half its first graduating class, for example, got a year and a half’s growth on student test scores—while still in the program.

How Will They Know

There are plenty of controversies to unpack here, but first there’s an overarching—and ironic—question begging to be asked: How will the  American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education and other teacher-prep traditionalists know whether this erosion of quality actually takes place? In recent years the group and many of the institutions it represents have fought thrown attempt after attempt to compel them to collect and share basic information like graduation and employment rates. Alternate routes to the classroom, they insist,  are a retreat from high standards—standards they set and decide whether they’ve met. Indeed last spring James Cibulka, was  unceremoniously pushed out of the organization where he was the founding leader, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, after attempting to require programs to provide evidence their graduates are effective teachers. It’s mind-boggling but true. A few states and school districts have begun to collect data on how teachers trained in different programs fare in classrooms. But in most states, unless a teacher-training program voluntarily shares data outlining how well it is preparing future educators, there’s  no way to really know.

What’s On the Record

The numbers on the record right now suggest the lack of good data obscures some pretty fundamental problems. For example, we know it’s not uncommon for a fourth or more of graduates in many programs to fail the tests required to secure a teaching license. And we know that lots of those who do become licensed feel the scant few weeks of student teaching, that are all many get, make the first years on the job a daunting struggle. So much so that half quit within three years. Tennessee one of three states recognized for its teacher-prep information gathering by the national nonprofit Data Quality Campaign began collecting data in 2007. Among other things,  its annual report shows how many graduates of each program teach for three out of the last four years and whether they have a statistically significant effect—positive or negative—on their students. So far, the results  are remarkably consistent—and show non-traditional training programs frequently doing as well as the state’s top colleges. Top-performing programs include one public university, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; two private universities, Lipscomb and Union; and three alternative programs, two of them Teach For America affiliates. Graduates of the state’s two largest training programs, Middle Tennessee State University and Tennessee Technological University, by contrast, have often had a negative impact on student learning. Half of their newly-minted teachers are on the job three out of four years. In some places, education leaders aren’t waiting for states to create systems like Tennessee’s. Minneapolis Public Schools, for instance, has  begun analyzing teacher evaluation and student performance data according to individual training programs. Finally, expected soon is a new federal rule requiring the  reporting of graduation and employment rates, among other basic information. The data won’t include information on the new teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom, but it will at least help determine how well the programs are serving students who invest tens of thousands of dollars or more earning degrees that should enable them to get—and flourish in—teaching jobs.

Leaving It Up to the States

In the end, it will be up to states whether to allow programs like Relay to join traditional schools of education. While the ESSA provision allows states to use a tiny slice of their federal teacher prep funding to support the alternatives, the more likely scenario is that public universities will fight state officials who try to approve the new academies. If the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education and other opponents of the GREAT Act are so confident that opening teacher prep to new approaches will erode high standards and be detrimental to teacher quality, they ought to support efforts to collect and share the data that will make their case.
Beth Hawkins is a writer at The 74, and formerly was a writer-in-residence at Education Post. Previously she wrote for Learning Curve, a blog about education for MinnPost, where she also covered a variety of other public policy topics. She loves writing for an audience that’s hungry for context and analysis and willing to indulge her many curiosities. Hawkins is the recipient of numerous ...

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