Duncan Pursues Teachers Who Make the Grade

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has spent the past several months dangling $4.35 billion in Race to the Top money at states to entice them to include data detailing students’ year-to-year academic growth when evaluating teachers’ performance (an idea that the teachers' unions have long dissed).

Now he may be poised to push states to dramatically overhaul their teacher colleges by urging states to follow Louisiana’s lead and include information specifying how well new teachers perform in real classrooms when evaluating the quality of schools of education and other training programs. Duncan is scheduled to give what his staff says is a major speech Thursday at Teachers College at Columbia University to set a new “national direction” on teacher preparation. The quality (or lack thereof) of America’s teacher colleges has long been one of the main stumbling blocks to closing the achievement gap. Arthur Levine, the former president of Columbia's Teachers College, put it bluntly in 2006 when he described how many “universities use their teacher education programs as ‘cash cows,’ requiring them to generate revenue to fund more prestigious departments. This forces them to increase their enrollments and lower their admission standards.”  They’ve also been criticized for offering some of the weakest academic and out-of-date professional programs on many campuses. Little has been done to improve the situation, despite the recommendations of one blue-ribbon committee after another, and several attempts by Congress to encourage improvement.

While speechwriters continue to tinker with Duncan’s text, many reformers are hoping that his plan uses the accountability-based teacher-preparation programs launched in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina as the model for the future. Not only did the state boost the rigor of its teacher-prep coursework and broaden the licensing exams to include more subject areas, but it began to judge the effectiveness of teacher-training programs by measuring the impact their graduates had on student learning. It used the “value added” model, which focuses on the gains made by individual students year to year, rather than classroom averages.

A study evaluating the effort revealed that only a few of Louisiana’s teacher colleges were producing graduates who were as effective in the classroom as experienced certified teachers. It also verified the value of the alternative training provided by The New Teacher Project (a nonprofit founded by D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee that trains high-performing college grads and midlife career changers for teaching jobs around the country.) Many of the students of novice TNTP grads got higher math, reading, and language-arts scores than the students of experienced teachers who had undergone traditional training. In Louisiana, many of those in TNTP’s program came in through Teach for America, the nonprofit that aggressively recruits top college graduates for teaching jobs in hard-to-staff schools.