Teacher-training colleges, which have come under fire from the Obama administration, are facing new scrutiny—this time, from their accreditor.
On Tuesday, a little over a year after negotiations over setting new federal rules for teacher-preparation programs ended at an impasse, a commission of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation will vote on a set of new accrediting standards that mirror several of the administration’s proposals.
If enacted, the new accrediting standards would require programs to tighten their admissions criteria and to prove that their graduates are contributing to the academic growth of the students they teach. The standards would also create a new “gold standard” of accreditation for outstanding programs.
The council’s Commission on Standards and Performance Reporting began debating the standards here on Monday; its Board of Directors will take them up at its inaugural meeting, in August.
David Steiner, who served on the federal rule-making panel last year and is a member of the accrediting commission, acknowledged a “major overlap” between the proposed accrediting standards and the Education Department’s proposed rules, which would have directed states to rate programs based on student-learning outcomes and would have limited eligibility for the federal Teach Grant program to highly rated ones.
“There is a very deep sense of déjà vu,” Mr. Steiner said in an interview.
Privately, some critics accuse the accreditor of deferring to the Education Department, which has been free to issue its own rules since the negotiations collapsed 14 months ago, but so far has not done so.
But Mr. Steiner, who is dean of the School of Education at the City University of New York’s Hunter College, said the proposed new accrediting standards reflect a growing consensus among policy makers and practitioners on the need for stricter entrance standards for the programs and for better evidence that students taught by the programs’ graduates are learning.
“These ideas are achieving a critical mass, so it’s not so surprising we would see them echoed across different discussion groups,” he said.
Still, the proposals remain controversial, as evidenced by comments collected by the council. In a survey of 500 respondents, 40 percent voiced concerns that tougher entrance standards could have a negative effect on the diversity of students in teacher-preparation programs.
In a letter to the commission, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education argued against several of the proposals. “No empirical evidence shows that tests such as the SAT and ACT are predictive of how well a teacher candidate will perform in a preparation program and/or impact student learning,” the association’s letter said. It also warned that stricter admissions requirements could “impact recruitment of candidates of color and other underrepresented groups.”
A third of the survey respondents raised doubts about the validity and reliability of existing value-added assessments, noting that some fields lack such measures altogether. Thirty percent opposed the creation of a “gold standard,” arguing that it could breed exclusivity and divide programs. In its letter, the teacher colleges’ association worried that such a standard would encourage policy makers to limit financial aid to only the highest-performing programs—as the Education Department had proposed doing with Teach Grants.
During discussion of the proposed standards on Monday, Rebecca Pringle, secretary-treasurer of the National Education Association, suggested that the commission strike language requiring programs to use value-added measures, when available, to show their impact on student learning.
“It’s too stark for me,” she said, suggesting that the measures be optional.
But several other members of the commission pushed back against that idea, arguing that states are already moving in the direction of value-added assessment and warning against watering down the standards.
“Every state is going to be developing these measures, and we should be leading that development and practice,” said Terry Holliday, who is Kentucky’s commissioner of education and a co-chair of the accreditation council’s commission. “We can’t ignore student growth.”
‘Breaking New Ground’
Peter T. Ewell, who led a technical panel that reviewed the almost 60 measures included in the council’s standards, praised the accreditor for offering the “most evidence-based” set of standards he’d seen.
“You are being very gutsy about leading with measures,” he said.
Mr. Ewell, who is a vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, encouraged the commission to continue with value-added assessment, but cautioned that “the measures aren’t all there” and stressed that it should remain one of multiple measures, as the council has proposed.
“Accreditation is ultimately based on peer judgment, so mechanical approaches to data should be avoided,” he said.
Still, he said, “ultimately, you do have to set a benchmark, to have the courage to say, ‘This is good enough and this is not good enough.'”
“You would be breaking new ground in the accreditation community if you do that,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Education Department’s proposed rules are in limbo, awaiting approval from the Office of Management and Budget. The department says it’s a victim of a bureaucratic backlog, but some observers are starting to question the administration’s commitment to the rules.
The Education Department has been highly critical of teacher colleges in the past, accusing them of lax standards. In a speech at Columbia University’s Teachers College in 2009, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan accused the programs of doing a “mediocre job” of preparing teachers for “the realities of the 21st-century classroom” and said they needed “revolutionary change”—not evolutionary tinkering.
The council’s president, James G. Cibulka, who also served on the federal rule-making panel, acknowledged the parallels between his group’s proposed new standards and the department’s proposed rules. But he pointed out that the standards were broader and were crafted by practitioners, not the department, giving them institutional buy-in.
“Accreditation, if it is to have legitimacy, must be the authentic voice of practitioners,” he said. Federal rules can “complement” self-regulation, he said, but “unless the profession takes ownership” of change, “no amount of regulation will get us where we need to go.”