Promoting innovation and maintaining high standards in teacher education through ESSA

On January 28th Thomas Arnett published an essay here on the Brown Center Chalkboard on changes to teacher preparation programs brought on by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The new provision authorizing states to establish Teacher Preparation Academies will, according to Arnett, “unlock innovation” and enable the field to address its enduring problems.

In response to this essay, I argue here that although I support the need for more innovation in programs that prepare our nation’s teachers, I believe this academy provision is dangerous and will lead to a lowering of standards. There are other options within ESSA to promote the innovation that Arnett calls for without the risks associated with the preparation academies.

Before discussing these options, though, I wish to first address some points in Arnett’s position. Arnett argues “Schools of Education seem to have done little over the last 30 years to fundamentally change their business models to align with suggested reforms.” Although there clearly is need for more improvements in all types of teacher preparation programs including those housed in universities, this blanket indictment of university programs fails to recognize the progress that many universities have made. These improvements include raising the standards for entering and completing programs, increased time devoted to supervised clinical experiences, and a focus on enabling new teachers to enact research-based and culturally responsive teaching practices in order to meet the learning needs of diverse students.  

Also, Arnett correctly sees the academy provision as facilitating the expansion of programs like Relay and MATCH, and he uncritically praises these newer independent programs because “their business models are aligned with student outcomes,” incorrectly suggesting that university programs and the state and national regulations that govern them are only aligned with inputs.

In a recent a peer-reviewed paper that disputes the logic behind Arnett’s claims, Hilary Conklin and I demonstrate how research has been selectively cited to support greater deregulation in teacher education, and how other research, which does not support this perspective, is ignored. We also illustrate, using Relay as one  example, how these distorted accounts are repeated until many policymakers and the public believe they are true. With regard to Relay, we argue that there is no publicly available vetted evidence that it has achieved even its own limited goal of preparing teachers who can raise pupil test scores.

In addition, we question an exclusive emphasis on the raising of standardized test scores as the singular measure of success. Instead we argue for a focus on the costs and benefits of multiple criteria including academic learning, critical thinking, social emotional learning, aesthetic learning, and civic development.

We further argue that blanket indictment of university teacher education as an “industry of mediocrity” that refuses to change is an exaggerated characterization that fails to recognize substantive improvements that have taken place in many university programs. We show how advocates of the deregulation of teacher education selectively cite data that cast negative light on university-based teacher preparation from reports like Arthur Levine’s 2006 study of teacher preparation in the U.S. while they ignore other evidence that does not support their deregulation position.

In reality, there is a consensus among scholars that there is a wide range of quality in both university and non-university teacher education programs, and that simplistic assertions about the efficacy of particular program types are not supported by the existing evidence.

I have argued elsewhere that the teacher preparation academies are not needed to foster innovation in the field, and that they open the door to programs with low standards. The academy provision may, in some cases, even require states to change their laws in ways that would lower standards overall. For example, if states choose to support teacher preparation academies, then they would not be able to place any “unnecessary restrictions on the methods of the academy” which includes requiring faculty to have advanced degrees, or placing restrictions on undergraduate or professional coursework such as requiring academic majors in the subjects taught. Furthermore, states like New York that require all programs to be nationally accredited would not be able to require academies to do so.  Though the new law may label these as “unnecessary restrictions,” I see coursework and accreditation requirements that include a focus on outcomes as means for guaranteeing quality preparation as is the case in most other professions.

Finally, one of the strongest arguments against the use of the academy provision in ESSA is that states can invest in a variety of other options for improving teacher and teacher education quality without establishing academies. This includes such opportunities as investing in teacher induction programs and teacher residency programs, in efforts to recruit, prepare and retain more teachers of color and teachers in shortage areas, and in expanding professional learning opportunities for experienced teachers. Those who believe that expanding independent teacher education programs like Relay and MATCH is desirable can use the funds to do so without establishing teacher preparation academies. The difference is that these programs would then be held to the same standards as other programs.

The assumptions embedded in Arnett’s arguments that current state and national accountability regulations are somehow impeding innovation in the field are not supported by research evidence or by his own arguments for teacher preparation academies.  Ironically, some of the programs that he claims are innovative like Relay have met state teacher education standards as well as national teacher accreditation standards. [1]

In conclusion, the funds that have been made available in Title 2 of ESSA to support innovation in teaching and teacher education offer an exciting opportunity to invest in a variety of teacher preparation and professional development programs that offer promise for providing everyone’s children with fully prepared and effective career teachers.  There is no good reason for authorizing teacher preparation academies to do this important work given the accompanying risk of lowering standards for teacher preparation programs.

[1] There is also one error in Arnett’s essay that should be pointed out. He states that ESSA requires that states recognize the curriculum from these academies as at least the equivalent of a master’s degree. ESSA actually says that states have the option to require this equivalency.