Author Archives: Ashley LiBetti

Go Forth and Improve, Teacher Preparation Programs. But Don’t Ask How.

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Image by Kevin Dooley via Flickr

A few weeks ago, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote an open letter calling out education schools. In it, he made several blunt remarks about the quality of teacher preparation programs, including that current teacher training “lacks rigor, is out of step with the times, and […] leaves teachers unprepared and their future students at risk.”

What the former Secretary’s letter didn’t include, however, were specifics on how preparation programs should improve. He talked a lot about grades, and about holding teachers to high standards, but that’s it.

At this point, you may be thinking: “You can’t expect him to get into the nitty gritty! The letter was more an op-ed than a policy brief.”

Sure. But then last week, the Department of Education released the final version of its long-awaited teacher preparation regulations. The regulations are an effort to hold teacher preparation programs accountable for the performance of the teachers they train after those teachers enter the classroom. Using teacher performance data, the regulations require states to create a system that rates programs as effective, at-risk, or low-performing.

Like the open letter, these regulations are devoid of specifics for how programs should improve. They say that states need to provide technical assistance for low-performing programs, for example, but don’t hint at what that support should look like. When the regulations were out for public comment, which were due in February 2015, several commenters suggested that the regulations should include specific prescriptions for what states need to do to support programs — but the Department declined, saying instead that states have “the discretion to implement technical assistance in a variety of ways.”

Why do both of these documents — representing the past and future of the highest education office — say practically nothing about how preparation programs can get better?

The answer is depressing: As a field, we don’t know how to build a better teacher preparation program.

That’s what Melissa Steel King and I found in our latest paper, A New Agenda: Research to Build a Better Teacher Preparation Program. There’s half a century of research on what makes a good teacher, but that research provides only the barest outlines of what an effective preparation program should look like. So much of teacher prep research asks “Does it work?” when really we need to be asking, “How well does it work, for whom, and under what circumstances?” Continue reading

When Soundbites are Technically True but Terribly Misleading [UPDATED]

UPDATE [May 20, 2016, 10:29 a.m.]: On May 18, Governor Wolf vetoed the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act.

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Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania state legislature passed a bill, the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act, which would base teacher layoffs on performance rather than seniority. The bill isn’t going any further, because Governor Wolf pledged to veto it, but that hasn’t stopped proponents and opponents from dropping not-quite-accurate-but-very-quotable soundbites.

Sen. Dave Reed says that the current seniority-based policy “forces schools and districts to lay off teachers based solely on date of hire,” and that the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act would give districts the ability to “hire and keep the best teachers.”

But Wythe Keever, a Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman, says the bill would do the exact opposite: “Experience in education has been demonstrated through years of research to have a correlation with students’ academic achievement.”

So…which is it? Would this bill help or hurt the teaching force?

The answer is both and neither. Reed and Keever’s comments are technically true, but also terribly misleading.

Despite what Sen. Reed suggests, the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act wouldn’t ensure that only the best teachers stay in the classroom. In 2013-14, only 1.8 percent of Pennsylvania teachers—220 teachers in all—were rated unsatisfactory. This bill could allow districts to fire every unsatisfactory teacher, and yet the overall teaching force would remain largely the same.

Wythe Keever isn’t right, either. On average, teachers with decades of experience are better than teachers with no experience, but they’re only slightly better than teachers with a handful of years of experience. And there’s significant variation within and across every experience level. That’s a very different conclusion than what he—and the current layoff policy—suggests, which is that more experienced teachers are always better than less experienced teachers.

Indignant soundbites are much more fun than the full truth, but as I’ve said before, context and nuance are crucial for any real policy decision.

If the Decision is Obvious, You’re Not Doing It Right

I’m a big supporter of charter schools as pre-k providers. I have a daily Google alert for “(pre-k OR prekindergarten) AND charter.” No one else really writes about charter schools and pre-k, so usually this Google alert sends me news about when and where a charter school is going to accept pre-k applications. Good information for parents, but not blog fodder.

Sometimes though, it’s exciting news. Like when Success Academy had a showdown over pre-k with Mayor de Blasio. Or yesterday, when my Google alert told me that a New Jersey charter school — the John P. Holland Charter School in Paterson — wasn’t allowed to open a pre-k program.

Often, charter schools’ pre-k applications are rejected for bureaucratic or logistical reasons, and in response I make the case again for policy reforms that get rid of those barriers. It’s all very clean because quality isn’t a consideration, and my support for charter pre-k remains unchallenged.

But this New Jersey situation is different — and much messier. It’s also a good time to remind everyone that supporting charter pre-k programs doesn’t mean blindly supporting all charters. Not all charter schools are high performing, and not all charters should offer pre-k. But in making decisions about what proposals to support and when, context is important.  Continue reading

Don’t Hold Preparation Programs Accountable for Inputs – But Outcomes Aren’t Much Better

Chad Aldeman and I released two papers on teacher preparation this morning. Both papers look at efforts to improve the quality of educator preparation programs and, consequently, future educators. il_570xN.836150536_3mo4

Some background context: to date, states have tried to affect teacher preparation in one of two ways. Continue reading

Three More Ways to Address Silicon Valley’s Preschool Problem

Silicon Valley has a preschool problem. According to reports released this morning from the Urban Institute, low-income children in the region, particularly children of immigrants, are far less likely to enroll in high-quality preschool programs than their higher income peers. In San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, only 26 percent of low-income 3-year-olds and 61 percent of low-income 4-year-olds attend preschool, compared to, respectively, 52 percent and 74 percent of higher income children of the same age.

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Given the extensive research on the positive effects of high-quality early education on low-income and low-income immigrant children, the low enrollment in Silicon Valley is concerning. Through interviews with dozens of stakeholders, the reports’ authors examine the barriers to preschool enrollment, and parse out the barriers that affect all low-income families, and those that are unique to low-income immigrant families. The authors then make recommendations for addressing each barrier.

The research is comprehensive, and the recommendations are solid. But I’m proposing three more ways to to increase low-income immigrant families’ preschool enrollment. Continue reading