Congress Mulls Reform of Teacher Training

Published July 1, 2003

A strong bid is under way on Capitol Hill to use the pending reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) to pressure universities, their professional schools of education, and state departments of education to reform how teachers are prepared and licensed to work in the nation’s K-12 classrooms.

Institutions of higher learning have their most direct impact on elementary and secondary education through the training of teachers. State departments of education typically collaborate with the 1,200 collegiate ed-schools to set up an “approved program” of pedagogical coursework aspiring teachers must complete.

In recent years, critics across the political spectrum have expressed growing discontent with the quality of the teachers this system is producing. In 1998, on the heels of a finding that six out of 10 Massachusetts’ teacher candidates failed a 10th-grade-level licensing test, President Bill Clinton signed into law an HEA reauthorization requiring the ed-schools to report their graduates’ passing rates on state examinations.

Some institutions claimed 100 percent passing rates by exploiting a loophole where the law failed to define “graduate” precisely. They reported candidates who passed the required coursework and then passed the state exams, but neglected to report those who passed the courses but failed the state exams.

Led by Representative Phil Gingrey, a Georgia Republican, the House Education Committee on June 11 approved on a voice vote a proposed Ready to Teach Act intended not only to tighten the reporting of ed-school data but also to stimulate sweeping reform of teacher education and certification.

Gingrey’s HR2211, which covers Title II of HEA, explicitly seeks to align collegiate teacher-training programs with the results-oriented No Child Left Behind Act, the K-12 reform package signed into law by President George W. Bush that mandates a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom by the 2005-06 school year.

Charter Colleges of Education

Among other federal incentives, HR2211 would fund states that establish “charter colleges of education,” which, like K-12 charter schools, would receive regulatory flexibility in exchange for a commitment to deliver results. What the bill envisions is that charter colleges would disdain the conventional counting of ed-school credits as a measure of teacher quality and instead develop “value-added” assessments to show their graduates actually increase student academic achievement.

Federal grants would go to states and education partnerships that ensured teacher preparation programs were based on “rigorous academic content, scientifically based research (including scientifically based reading research), and challenging state student academic content standards.”

Incentives for Change

Critics have charged that ed-schools too often disparage the idea of teacher-directed transmission of knowledge in favor of teachers being mere facilitators who help students construct their own knowledge, even in precise disciplines like mathematics. Surveys of the ed-schools also have shown relatively few of them teach aspiring teachers how to use phonics in teaching their pupils how to read. Because extensive research establishes that teacher-directed instruction and phonics are essential for most students, the intent of the HEA reauthorizers to exert change on teacher education is evident.

In addition, federal incentives would reward states that:

  • Set up alternate routes to the classroom that enable mid-career professionals to become teachers without encountering process-filled barriers;
  • Develop merit pay for exemplary performance as well as differential pay for principals and teachers of hard-to-fill subjects such as reading, math, science, and special education;
  • Develop teacher advancement and retention strategies, such as opportunities to become mentors or master teachers;
  • Produce mechanisms to ensure local school systems can expeditiously remove incompetent teachers; and,
  • Devise ways to document gains in student achievement teachers have brought about as well as the teachers’ mastery of the subjects they teach.

Accurate Performance Reporting

Gingrey’s bill is the first of an expected series of HEA reauthorization measures that will address such contentious issues as affirmative action and accreditation. At a subcommittee hearing addressing “America’s Teachers Colleges: Are They Making the Grade?” remarks by Michigan Democrat Dale Kildee indicated the 2003 reauthorization will continue to put bipartisan heat on the ed-schools, universities, and state education departments.

Stressing the need for accountability in teacher preparation, Kildee said it is imperative that “critical information on performance” be reported accurately.

Information on state standards for teachers also is important. Subcommittee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican, noted a 2002 report by Secretary of Education Rod Paige found most states set minimum passing scores for teacher licensure well below national averages.

“The data collected for this report suggest that schools of education and formal teacher training programs are failing to produce the types of highly qualified teachers that the No Child Left Behind Act demands,” McKeon remarked.

In tightening reporting requirements, it appears Gingrey followed some of the recommendations of Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust. Pass rates would have to be reported for each student who was in the teacher-prep program at least two semesters, instead of just “program completers.” Requiring reporting only on “completers” enabled institutions to withhold that label from students who flunked the exam, thereby destroying the data’s value for evaluating program effectiveness, Haycock noted.

Value of NCATE Certification Disputed

During the hearing, Arthur Wise, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), suggested Congress allow NCATE-approved institutions and states to use NCATE accreditation as a substitute for meeting all or some of the Title II reporting requirements. Established in 1954, NCATE has aspired to be the sole, universally accepted accrediting agency for the 1,200 ed-schools; only 665 schools–55 percent–have voluntarily associated with NCATE.

Lisa Graham Keegan, CEO of the Education Leaders Council and former state education superintendent in Arizona, disputed the idea that NCATE and the education schools are enforcing rigorous standards for teaching. In her prepared testimony she noted it is common knowledge the “whole language” approach to reading has failed an entire generation, “but don’t tell that to the colleges of education–they’re still working hard to ensure not that no child is left behind, but that no child’s inner psyche goes unnurtured.”

By requiring use of scientifically validated methods in K-12, No Child Left Behind now seeks to ensure phonics gets taught in elementary school, but that “doesn’t ensure that phonics gets taught in teaching schools.” It’s time –through the HEA reauthorization–to see to it that happens, Keegan said.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow for the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].

For more information …

Testimony on the House Education and the Workforce subcommittee hearing on the effectiveness of teachers colleges can be located on the Web at

The text of the proposed Ready to Teach Act (HR2211) is available at