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The Obama administration and teachers

How the Obama administration proposes improving teacher quality

The Obama administration proposed new regulations in 2014 for teacher training programs, aimed at eventually making teachers better at their jobs.

President Obama announced in April 2014 that he would ask the Education Department to propose those regulations during summer 2014. The regulations, proposed in November 2014, would tie students' scores on standardized tests back to their teachers' preparation program in order to hold those programs accountable.

Teacher training programs are prolific, but often criticized

Where do teachers come from? There are two routes: studying education in college, or an alternative program like Teach for America. The Obama administration wants to regulate both.

Whether they take a traditional or an alternative path, most future teachers get at least part of their preparation at a college or university: 88 percent in 2013, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Teacher preparation programs, particularly at colleges, are often criticized for a variety of flaws: they don't attract top students from high schools; their graduates aren't as diverse as American K-12 students; they don't offer enough clinical training. Alternate routes like Teach for America are criticized, too, most frequently for offering insufficient training for the realities of the classroom or for producing teachers who stay only their mandated two years in the classroom before moving onto other roles.

The Obama administration has been talking about improving teacher preparation since the early days of its first term, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan accused schools of education of being inefficient, ineffective "cash cows" for colleges and universities. The regulations proposed in November 2014 were the final step in that effort.

What does the Obama administration want to do?

The November 2014 regulations are the latest in a long line of federal government proposals to overhaul (or at least nudge) teacher training programs. The most comprehensive plan came out in October 2011.

There are two main ideas:

  • States should develop data systems that focus on how graduates of teacher preparation programs perform in the classroom. That could mean including results of teachers' professional evaluations — now increasingly based on pupils' scores on standardized tests. The databases would also draw from surveys of alumni, pass rates on teacher licensing exams, and job placement and retention rates.
  • States should use those databases to rate the quality of teacher preparation programs. Some federal financial aid earmarked for future teachers would be available only if teachers attended a high-quality program.

How can the government affect teacher education programs?

The Obama administration wants to change how colleges and universities do business — not just in teacher education, but in other areas too. But there's a big obstacle: the federal government doesn't really give money directly to colleges. It sends money to students through federal grants and loans, and it sends money to states for K-12 education.

So regulating how teachers are trained will either come back to strings attached to the money sent to states for K-12 education, or to the $180 billion the government spends on federal grants and loans to college students, some of whom become teachers.

Some of the requirements the administration is proposing are for states. The administration wants states to create databases that track how teachers' students perform on tests. Those test results would be used not just to evaluate the teachers — a process that's already underway in many states — but the program that taught those teachers to teach.

Other proposals deal with with a small slice of federal financial aid that goes to students who are planning to teach. Eventually, that aid would be available only to students attending a program considered high-quality by the state where it's located.

What metrics could be used to evaluate teacher preparation?

The Obama administration has discussed several ways to measure quality, although states will each design their own rating system for teacher preparation programs. Those benchmarks include satisfaction surveys, accreditation, and placement rates and employment outcomes for programs' graduates.

The most controversial part of the regulations would incorporate teachers' on-the-job evaluations, which are increasingly tied to students' scores on standardized tests. These scores try to measure how much impact an individual teacher has on a student's progress — they figure out how much progress a student would be expected to make during an academic year on state standardized tests, then compare that to the progress that was actually made.

The Obama administration has pushed for states to tie teacher evaluations — and high-stakes decisions on hiring and firing teachers, or closing schools — to these scores. In part due to the importance now placed on the scores, they've become a controversial measurement, particularly when they are published with teachers' names attached.

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