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?”
Policymakers, programs, and researchers all bear some responsibility for the current state of teacher prep research, so in the paper we make recommendations for how to move past the current norm. Ultimately, the field needs to build a body of rigorous research that programs, policymakers, and states can use to make evidence-based decisions for improving teacher preparation. As Andy Rotherham and I wrote in an op-ed yesterday, the federal teacher prep regulations are a huge opportunity to move the field forward on this front. When we finally have that research, maybe then the specifics will come, and maybe then we’ll actually know how preparation programs should improve.