Federal Policy on Teacher Quality: Is Accountability the Answer?

Cross-posted at Education Week

I just read a very thoughtful piece in the Washington Post by Robert C. Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, taking issue with his peers’ blanket rejection of the efforts of the U.S. Department of Education to hold schools of education accountable for the low quality of their programs. The time, says Dean Pianta, is long past due for the schools of education to step up to their responsibility for producing more capable teachers.

I was a bit torn when I read his piece. We have many good teachers and some that are truly great, but I agree with the Dean that the quality of many of the graduates of most teachers colleges is a serious problem and the failure of the schools of education to play their part in assuring high teacher quality in the United States has to be addressed. Dean Pianta is also correct in pointing out that the U.S. Department of Education has backed off the most onerous and in some cases ridiculous parts of its earlier proposals, and is now prepared to be much more flexible on the points in greatest contention. So his call to his colleagues to accept responsibility for the current state of affairs and to do what must be done is refreshing.

But, at the same time, I must say that I have come to see the administration as having only one tool—tough-minded accountability—in its toolkit, and wanting to deploy that tool against all the problems in American education, whether it is the right tool or not.

The poor quality of a great many of the graduates of our teacher education programs is not an accident, nor is it the product of feckless deans who need only to be kicked in the shins to shape up and do better. I have every reason to believe that the people who run our teachers colleges are no better or worse than you or I. They are part of an ecology that provides them incentives to which they respond, just as you and I respond to the incentives we face. I am pretty sure that if you or I were in their position, we would respond very much as they do to those incentives. And we would get the same results.

Deans of schools of education are not independent actors. They would get better results if the top performing high school graduates chose teaching as a career. But, if they simply raised their entry requirements, they would choke off their supply of candidates unless teaching was somehow made more attractive as a choice of profession for students who could choose high status careers. The schools of education, however, have no control over the factors that determine how attractive teaching is as a career (I cannot refrain here from pointing out that the same administration that wants to hold schools of education responsible for the quality of their graduates appears to have done its level best to make teaching less attractive as a career by holding teachers accountable for their performance using draconian methods that are simply indefensible). Is it reasonable to ask teachers colleges to raise their standards of admission—which would certainly improve the quality of their graduates—if doing so would dry up the supply of candidates for admission?

Take another point. Years ago, when I was running the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession, I asked several deans at leading schools of education why they were not raising their standards of admission. They told me that they had tried, that their own faculty was willing to do it, even knowing the risks, but they had been foiled by the faculty of arts and sciences, because the arts and sciences faculty were worried that, if the school of education raised its standards, there would be fewer students in their English, mathematics, science, history, philosophy and music classes.

And then there is the matter of simple economics. Many teachers colleges are a major economic generator for their universities, depending on the school of education to generate a large surplus to run the rest of the institution. The presidents and provosts of those institutions, to say nothing of the chief financial officers, have no intention of letting their education deans do anything to upset that applecart. But doing a better job of educating our future teachers is going to take more money. Where is it supposed to come from?

I have been convinced for decades that this country will not get the teachers it needs without major changes in the institutions that select, educate and train them for work as teachers. But, in my opinion, tough accountability is not the way to do it.

It turns out that many countries—those that are now at the top of the world’s league tables in student performance—have greatly improved the quality of their teachers. None have done it with the kind of system the U.S. Department of Education has proposed. Those that needed to do so have found ways to make teaching much more attractive as a career. As they were doing that, they raised standards of entry into teacher education institutions, making them more selective. Some have moved teacher education into their research institutions, making it more prestigious and providing a more intellectually demanding, research-oriented environment for the education of new teachers, while at the same time improving the connection between theory and practice by providing practical experiences in schools early and frequently during their studies. They have improved prospective teachers’ command of subjects they will teach and given future teachers research tools so that they can be the agents for improving their own schools. They have used career ladder systems in schools to create cadres of master teachers to take responsibility for teaching teachers their craft when they first arrive on the job.

If the U.S. Department of Education viewed its task as helping states to put these conditions in place, if they saw their challenge as building a new system for selecting, educating, training, mentoring and supporting teachers in a financially and professionally rewarding career in teaching, then I would say fine, now let’s talk about accountability. But, let’s be clear: Installing tough-minded accountability systems, of any kind, is NOT a substitute for that kind of ecology, that kind of system. All you have to do to prove that is to look at the countries that have succeeded in building a first class teacher corps and producing very high student achievement. We are not on virgin ground. Others have trod it before. Shouldn’t we take a look at how they did it?

One last point. In the last analysis, it is the states that are responsible for initial teacher quality. It is the states who license beginning teachers, who decide whether or not to approve the teacher education programs offered by higher education institutions and who decide whether to abide by the decisions of the accreditation organizations or set their own rules for allowing institutions of higher education to offer teacher education programs. By and large, in the past, the states have had very lax standards for licensure of teachers, have routinely waived licensing requirements in the face of teacher shortages, have virtually conferred the right to grant initial licenses to teach to the teachers colleges—which is a direct conflict of interest—and have abdicated their responsibility to decide what a good teacher education program is to the accreditation organizations, which are essentially trade associations. Maybe it is time for the states to assume more responsibility for taking their role as guarantor of quality more seriously. They could, if they wished, bring about a revolution in teacher education comparable to the revolution in medical education brought about by the Flexner Report early in the last century. If they did that, they would be wise to consider all the systemic issues I raised above, and not reach for a silver bullet of tough-minded institutional accountability being proposed today.