Thursday, September 5, 2013

Teacher Preparation Standards Add New Outcomes

The new standards for accrediting teacher preparation programs have just been adopted by the Board of Directors of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) to ensure that candidates completing programs are “classroom-ready” and can demonstrate they have a positive impact on student learning. This latter quality seems a reasonable goal for a new teacher, and there is careful language about using multiple measures of valid and reliable data that is spelled out to include ways of measuring growth over time. The first three standards all address what happens during the program, but standard four is a new addition, an attempt to measure candidates’ effectiveness and success in their careers, and their satisfaction with their professional preparation, once they have graduated and have been teaching in full time jobs. It’s going to mean that institutions will have to do more than keep a list of alumni, they will have to continue to gather complex data and create survey instruments, following graduates even when they move out of state.

Let’s just make an analogy for a moment. Let’s say we imagine two doctors who finish medical school, pass the board exams, and get full time jobs in the emergency rooms of hospitals. One works in a large city ER, while the other is in a suburban ER. The medical school will be judged on the health records of the patients of these two doctors, as well as their satisfaction with their education. The city ER doctor has twice the patients of the other doctor, horrible working conditions, constant stress from treating gunshot and stab wound victims related to gang activity, and feels betrayed by her medical education that did not prepare her for this reality. She eventually quits. The other doctor enjoys an efficiently run hospital with well-trained colleagues, and the personal rewards of helping his patients get immediate care and treatment, and saving lives. He gives high marks on a survey measuring his satisfaction with his medical education. The medical school is penalized in the case of the ER doctor, and rewarded in the case of the other doctor. As cases like this accumulate, the program shifts from encouraging and preparing doctors to work in settings like the first one to creating more opportunities for doctors to go to jobs like the second one. How might such a trend negatively impact the health of patients?

Now let’s imagine a case of two teachers. They are from the same institution, and are enrolled in masters programs that lead to dual certification in students with disabilities. The first teacher is getting certified in early childhood, the second teacher in secondary mathematics. They both graduate with honors, pass the state exams with high scores, and find full time jobs. The first is employed in a large city district in a first grade inclusion classroom in a high poverty school. Her students are not old enough for state tests, so the first problem is what will be the valid measures of this teacher’s impact on her students’ learning? How can we control for absenteeism, student turnover, neglect or abuse in the home, the effects of homelessness, hunger, and other common conditions of poverty? What of the effect of working conditions on this teacher, such as a large class size, stress, lack of resources or support, staff and administrative turnover? How will we know if she uses harsh punishments to “manage” poor behavior? Suppose she has poor evaluations from her principal because her students often misbehave and are not reading and writing well enough. When asked to rate her teacher preparation program in a survey, she gives low marks because she feels she was not prepared for the realities of her current position. After two years, she quits.

The other teacher gets a job in a suburban district teaching special education classes to ninth graders who are way behind and hate math. Their scores from previous state tests are very low. This teacher uses computer programs to provide remediation, and rewards students frequently with prizes, candy, free time and pizza parties to improve their attitudes. Although they love the teacher and their test scores do go up a little, they really haven’t improved their knowledge or skills enough to handle high school level algebra. The teacher does have positive evaluations from the principal because of the perception that students are well behaved, participate, and make progress on the computer programs. This teacher gets tenure and gives high marks to the institution that prepared him.

The teacher preparation program is penalized for not meeting the requirements of standard four in the case of the first teacher, and rewarded for meeting them in the case of the second. As cases like this accumulate, the institution shifts focus from encouraging and preparing teachers like the first one to preparing more teachers like the second one. Over time, the focus in teacher preparation is on effectiveness, defined as performance on standardized tests by the teacher’s students, as the singular measure of teacher quality, and concerns for how teachers attend to moral dimensions of learning, or to issues of diversity, diminish. How might such a trend negatively impact learning for all students?

So although it may seem reasonable to say that institutions preparing teachers should be held accountable for the outcomes of that preparation, there are simply too many factors outside the control of the institution for that to be a reasonable requirement, at least in the way it has been designed in the CAEP standards. The other big problem, which underlies so much of what is wrong with educational policy, is the misuse of standardized testing to measure things it was not designed to measure. Serious concerns have been raised about the use of value-added measures (VAMs) seeking to capture student growth over time, and using those scores as a heavy consideration in rating teachers and granting tenure (see this 2011 letter from top experts to the New York State Regents for example). Now these teacher preparation standards are asking even more of the VAMs, and it is quite an unreasonable and dangerous leap to say they are valid measures of the quality of teacher preparation programs.
We are engrossed in a policy world in teacher education that doesn’t think through the unintended consequences of making changes to standards and reporting requirements of institutions.  Extant research on the statistical invalidity of using value-added measures of student learning and growth to evaluate teachers, schools, and programs is ignored There is little or no discussion of the moral implications of these policy decisions, and there is no way to know whether the ends to means are achieved in defensible ways or through cheating and gaming the system. As Diane Ravitch has said, “Test-based accountability encourages a slew of negative behaviors.” It also creates burdensome and costly administrative requirements to collect and analyze data that do little to promote meaningful reforms to programs and improve how and what teacher educators teach their students. These standards create requirements that will suck time and money away from teacher preparation institutions, and in teaching, time and money are precious resources that should be carefully protected and closely monitored.