by Anne Elrod Whitney, Ph.D.
Report cards may sound simple and harmless. But the “report cards” for teacher education programs that were recently proposed by the U.S. Department of Education are a bad idea. They, and the proposed new federal rules of which they are a part, could do tremendous damage to schools, to colleges, to teachers, and to children.
The U.S. Department of Education has proposed new regulations for university teacher education programs. If enacted, they would undermine college and school partnerships that prepare excellent new teachers and support current teachers in improving. The regulations would hinder existing good work and would force changes in programs, ultimately diminishing the teaching force as a whole. At the same time, the regulations would extend the reach of the already-excessive testing system forced upon schools.
Flawed Methods with Serious Consequences
The thrust of the proposed regulations is to subject college and university teacher education programs to a system of so-called “value-added measurement” (VAM). Children’s scores–on controversial tests that are still in early stages of development–would be linked back to individual teachers, teacher candidates, and (by extension) specific university programs through statistical procedures that have been discredited by scholars in both statistics and education. These calculations would then be used to create report cards comparing teacher preparation programs in a state. Though the report cards might appear “simple,” they would be used for deciding some of the most weighty matters in education: accreditation and funding. The regulations would require states to use the report card comparisons in accrediting programs; the results would further be tied to higher education funding (using the federal TEACH grants as a lever ).
These regulations are both dangerous and irresponsible. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Testing for these purposes is bad for children. Reliance on testing for “accountability” shapes teaching and curriculum in ways that narrow the scope and diminish the quality of students’ experiences in school. As the focus on external assessments increases, students do more and more “test-like” activities and practice runs instead of authentic and meaningful projects. These negative effects most impact students who are poor and those with the greatest challenges to learning, such as those with disabilities or those learning English. These issues have been addressed by the National Research Council and by the nonprofit organization Fairtest, among others.
- Government should not overreach into what goes on in specific college programs and courses. Politicians are not professors. Faculty who do research in a field of study should decide what a student in that field should learn to get a degree at a college or university. The biologists should design the biology program; the engineers should design the engineering program. Scholars in a field know what experiences students should have to become expert in that field; remote politicians, political appointees, and staffers in Washington do not. The same is true for teacher education.
- Money, time, and energy that could be used on successful programs would instead be used for an expensive system built on flawed methods.The costs of implementing the proposed regulations would be substantial and would draw both fiscal and human resources away from the actual work of teacher preparation and research. We already have stellar teacher education programs like this one at Penn State that are threatened by these proposed regulations. Recordkeeping should never take over to the point where it impedes teaching and learning.
- A reductive “report card” ignores the unique advantages of individual college and university programs. Students aren’t cardboard cutouts, and college programs shouldn’t be, either. We are fortunate to have a wide range of public and private institutions of higher education to serve the broad array of higher education needs in the United States. If you have sent a child of your own to college, you know that deciding where to pursue higher education involves a complex array of characteristics, both of your child and of the institution. Each college is in a different place, with a different history, different students, and different faculty, focusing on different things with different goals. Comparing institutions on a limited number of insensitive measures ignores these differences in mission and character, forcing nonsensical comparisons. No one approach fits all contexts.
- The regulations proposed can’t actually do what it they are supposed to do. VAM as a method for evaluating teachers and schools has been discredited by the American Statistical Association, along with most academic scholars in the field of teacher education. Moreover, the tests to be used are relatively undeveloped and were not designed for this purpose.
These are just a few of the largest problems with the Department of Education’s plan. The proposed plan is the latest step in the disastrous series of decisions in education policy emanating first from the Bush administration and now from the Obama administration–decisions which have resulted in a staggering amount of high-stakes testing for kids and an unprecedented level of interference from government in the experiences our teachers and kids have in school. Neither our children nor our teachers are served well by this clumsy, one-size-fits-all approach to education.
I urge all readers, both educators and neighbors, to respond promptly and strongly. Once in place, the proposed regulations would be tied to state and federal administrative infrastructure in ways that would make them extremely difficult to extricate.
Some simple things we can do:
- Talk with our neighbors about these issues, including parents, teachers, parent-teacher associations, administrators, and school boards. The regulations were announced during a busy holiday, and the comment period will coincide with another. It helps to draw people’s attention to what is going on. Consider sharing this post via social media. Invite a conversation over coffee.
- Make a comment on the regulations at this site during the 60-day public comment window that will end February 2, 2015. Encourage your network to do the same.
- Educate our elected representatives about the danger these proposed regulations pose to colleges and universities in their constituencies—and to children in schools. While these regulations are from the Department of Education and not subject to legislative approval, pressure from Congress can be very persuasive. Take a moment now to contact your congressional leaders.
Too often we fail to act, realizing only after a plan has been implemented that it is hurtful and then finding that it is too deeply embedded to root out. This time we can do better. Let’s step in before any further damage is done.
Anne Elrod Whitney is Associate Professor of Education at the Pennsylvania State University. She is also a proud public school parent.
To comment on the proposed regulations for teacher preparation, click here.