How Congress Can Improve Teacher Education | Commentary

Posted November 11, 2013 at 11:44am

The nation’s teacher education programs are in disarray. Many programs have low admission and graduation standards, weak curricula, inadequate clinical experience, faculty who are out of touch with practice and limited contact with schools.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the federal government can change this to match the rhetoric of improving teaching with the resources to do it. In fact, Congress can do it not by enacting yet another new program, but by tweaking two existing programs slated for reauthorization. These are the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, seven years past due, and the Higher Education Act, which expires at the end of 2013.

At the moment, Title II of the HEA and the ESEA consists of a smorgasbord of programs to strengthen teaching. It’s possible to create a comprehensive program that offers the promise of being much more effective.

In fact, several states have embraced wholesale change in how they educate teachers in an effort to produce a different result in the classroom. For the past six years, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation has offered a state teaching fellowship in Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio which gives insight into how this might be accomplished.

For maximum impact, the new comprehensive program would focus on the states. It would target their governors and create a coalition of legislators on both sides of the aisle, along with the chief state school officer, the state higher education executive officer, school districts, teacher education providers and teacher unions to assure continuity.

The program would offer fellowships to top students with expertise in high-need subject areas such as math, science, English as a second language and special education to attend excellent teacher education programs.

It would be more cost-effective to provide funding for students to attend master’s programs, needing one year of support rather than four for an undergraduate degree. It would also encourage career changers who have excellent records, and recent college graduates, to enroll. In exchange, students would be required to spend at least three years teaching in-state.

To qualify to participate, states would be required to agree to undertake a reauthorization of all of their teacher education programs, including university and non-university providers, and to close the failing programs.

The criteria for judging success would be measures such as student achievement in graduates’ classes, placement rates of graduates, and admission and graduation requirements. Programs would also be required to provide three years of mentoring to graduates to improve classroom performance and encourage retention beyond the three years.

This is the right time for states to do this. In general, states are hiring fewer teachers, so they don’t need as many teacher education programs. At the same time, states need and want a well-educated teacher corps to meet evolving goals. In addition, high school graduates are entering a job market that requires the highest order levels of skills and knowledge in history.

Further, state economic development depends on having such graduates and the teachers to educate them. No one knows — or appreciates — this more than governors who spend the bulk of their time determining how best to grow the economy, keep workers employed and educate their citizens to high levels.

A portion of current Title II funding should also be reserved for studying what works in teacher education and the characteristics that make for excellent teachers. Research in these areas is generally poor in quality, with a greater focus on teaching than learning on the part of students in graduates’ classes.

The potential impact of this program is to increase the quality of future teachers and both to raise the floor and ceiling for teacher education programs in the United States. Until we better prepare teachers entering the profession, little else education reformers do will improve American students’ achievement compared to their international peers. Congress need only look to the states to determine a path forward that incentivizes — not inhibits — the innovative work already being done on teacher prep.

Almost everyone agrees teacher prep programs can be better. Now let’s make them better.

Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, is former president and professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.