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Why teacher preparation programs are crucial for our children

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- One of the most important yet frequently overlooked and misunderstood components of public school education is the system of teacher-preparation programs.

The national network of higher-education institutions that select, train and oversee the mentorship of the country's new teachers holds in its hands the immense power to shape public education through the quality of its emerging teacher corps.

And not nearly enough sunlight shines on how these programs select teaching candidates, choose what skills to convey, and assess their graduates' effectiveness.

A new proposed bill called the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act actually seeks to make things even cloudier. The legislation was recently introduced by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., chairman of the Higher Education and Workforce Development subcommittee.

The PROSPER Act purports to eliminate "burdensome federal regulations that put Washington in the middle of issues that are the responsibility of institutions or states, limit student choice, and stifle innovative practices by institutions," according to the bill summary. "The bill also repeals or streamlines reporting requirements that fail to provide useful information to students, families, and policymakers, and exacerbate rising college costs."

In effect, the bill would end the current requirement that educator-preparation programs submit vital performance data to the federal government. Plus, the U.S. Department of Education would no longer be required to collect and report this data.

But the answer is to improve the existing accountability system for teacher preparation programs, not eliminate it, according to Kate Walsh, president of the nonpartisan watchdog organization, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).

"Are the current attempts at oversight of teacher-preparation programs actually improving teacher preparation? No. The accountability efforts in place are absolutely not what they should be, but why is the answer to get rid of them instead of fixing them?" asked Walsh.

She told me that throwing out the baby with the bathwater in the case of the current level of oversight is indicative of the current administration's view of all regulations across industries.

But Walsh isn't sweating it, because the NCTQ does the job of reporting out to the public how teacher-preparation programs are doing by partnering with the states themselves.

The "2017 State Teacher Policy Yearbook," which is scheduled to be released Dec. 14, acknowledges that it's the close relationship that the NCTQ has with individual states, which provide the organization data, that makes progress on this front possible.

This is especially notable considering that the news this year isn't what anyone would like shouted from rooftops. From 2009 to 2015, the NCTQ had found progress in implementation of policies to improve teacher quality -- things like tightening admission requirements to get more qualified candidates into teaching, adequately preparing teachers in high-need subjects like special education and ensuring teachers are highly qualified in their selected content areas.

 

But progress has slowed.

As a whole, for nearly 80 percent of states, the policy recommendations that the NCTQ has been pushing have either stalled or decreased, including increasing oversight of teacher preparation programs, moving more qualified people of color into the teaching pipeline and instituting more meaningful teacher evaluation. This was about the same as in 2015 and worse than in 2013, when 60 percent of states made gains.

Frankly, it's easy to be unmoved by such statistics -- it's true that this topic is largely the education industry's version of inside ball.

But parents, pay close enough attention and you might start to see why it really matters.

Next time a note comes home from school or you get the opportunity to visit your kids' classroom, watch for things like misspellings or even inaccurate or politically biased information posted on bulletin boards.

Maybe you'll ask your child for details about what goes on during the day and suspect that not much goes on at school -- or that your kid's classroom is out of control.

You might even read a local news story reporting that your school is getting dinged on state school report cards for poor performance or for not servicing students with special needs adequately.

Only then will you realize how vitally important the sleepy topic of state teacher-preparation program quality really is to your family and local community.

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Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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