HEA reauthorization: Will it improve teacher prep?

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Five years after it was due, Congress has reauthorized the Higher Education Act. The push to move this legislation was no doubt connected primarily to a pressing need to ensure the availability of student loans, and to a lesser but not insignificant extent to Congress?s desire to prevent the Bush Administration from issuing regulations supporting Secretary Spellings? higher ed agenda on their way out the door. The 1,100+ page bill covers a lot of ground, but the 40 or so pages that focus on teacher quality represent some significant improvements, particularly in accountability for teacher preparation programs.

Most important, the new law aims to get at more meaningful pass rate data, the information that education schools report to states about the percentage of teacher candidates enrolled in their programs who pass state licensure tests. Under the new law, and as recommended by NCTQ (thank you very much), ed schools are now required to report the percentage of students who enter student teaching and have passed licensure tests?in addition to the current requirement of reporting the percentage of program completers who pass these tests.

Why is this new requirement significant? It was widely acknowledged that many less-than-stellar ed schools were reporting 100 percent pass rates year after year by making the licensure tests a program requirement. If a candidate was unable to pass the tests, he or she hadn?t technically completed the program, so the ed school could shield chronic poor performance from public view. The new law essentially forces ed schools to give pass rates for everyone in their programs, provided teacher candidates get to the point where they must do student teaching.

We do worry that the language in the law that describes the point of entering student teaching as completing "100 percent of nonclinical coursework" might leave the law ripe for more gaming. It appears that if schools were to move some coursework requirements to the very end of the program, they could make students who are program completers virtually identical to those who have completed 100 percent of nonclinical coursework. It will be up to the Feds to prevent such shams.

The new HEA also commendably requires programs to report on their admissions criteria, which are incredibly lax in many cases. The quality of the teaching force is dramatically affected by many ed schools? virtually open admissions policies.

We also find interesting that the previous version of the law had specifically prohibited the creation of a national system of teacher certification, but that prohibition doesn't appear in this new law. Perhaps the winds of change are blowing toward a single, unified system?

But there is another prohibition in the new law, just to prevent anyone from having any fun with all this hot data, the law specifically prevents the Secretary of Education from creating a "National List," ranking states or ed schools based on the accountability data they must report. This seems to be a nod to appease the threatened, now also required to report average scaled scores. Scaled scores reflect actual level of performance, and will make it easier to compare the quality of programs than pass rate data alone. And, because so many states use the same tests, scaled scores will also shine a light on the egregiously low passing scores in many states. Of course, the prohibition against a national list doesn?t mean a non-partisan teacher quality advocacy organization that doesn?t take any federal funding couldn't do it...