Teacher Preparation

How should online teacher programs be judged?

A fight over accountability pits Obama administration against online teaching schools

Do teachers who learn the job online perform as well as teachers trained in the same kind of brick-and-mortar classroom they’re likely to teach in? A new set of proposals to regulate online teacher preparation programs from the federal government is an effort to find out which programs are working and which aren’t, but it’s facing widespread opposition from the world of distance learning.

Late in 2014, the Department of Education revealed its plans to ramp up accountability for education schools, which have come under fire in recent years for lax admissions standards and questionable rigor. The move sparked a deluge of 4,800 mostly critical letters, calling out federal overreach into state affairs and denouncing reforms that would “extend the ‘test and punish’ accountability model into higher education.”

Now the DOE is grappling with how to apply its controversial rules to online teacher preparation programs, which have become the top providers of education degrees in the country. (A month-long public comment period closed on May 2.) The country’s 2,100 education schools offer a staggering 28,000 teacher certification and degree programs. At a fundamental level, online schools fear that having separate evaluation methods from brick-and-mortar campuses would set them apart and diminish their status.

Related: Data on teacher prep grads will soon lead to consequences for some programs

The DOE’s proposal requires every state to issue a rating to online programs that grant 25 or more teaching certificates in that state. This means, for example, that the University of Phoenix, a for-profit institution which operates online in 42 states, would potentially receive 42 separate ratings. Beyond the bureaucratic burden, online universities argue that comparing ratings will be useless since each state can assign different weight to the four evaluation metrics, creating an “apples to oranges” mismatch across state lines.

The ratings would be tied to eligibility for federal TEACH grants, which reward high-performing teachers who pledge to work in high-need schools and subjects. If an online program gets two “at risk” or “low performing” ratings from any states within a three-year period, all students of that program—even those in states that gave the program high marks—would be ineligible for TEACH grants.

The policy would put states in “the uncomfortable position of potentially disqualifying students from other states for TEACH grants,” contends a letter submitted by Walden University, a for-profit online university which is the fourth largest provider of education degrees in the nation.

In an email, Dr. Kate Steffens, dean of Walden’s education college, called the department’s regulations a “costly federal intrusion” into the operations of states and institutions. The DOE estimates the implementation will cost states $42.1 million over 10 years and has offered no federal assistance. Critics say the cost will be much higher and will drain funds from other programs.

Sharon Robinson, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, points out that online programs are already subject to state accreditation and internal evaluations. “Why go through the torture of creating something punitive,” she says of the proposed ratings system. “There are a number of ways to be accountable and also to inspire ambitions for improvement.”

Robinson supports performance-based teacher assessments like edTPA and investing in programs such as the Teacher Quality Partnership grants which seek to boost innovations in teacher preparation through collaborations between higher education, school districts, and local education agencies.

Related: Why Don’t More Teachers Like the edTPA

“There’s a right place” for accountability, Robinson says. “It’s not to intimidate students or require them to sink or swim, but to put them in safe water where they can find their own foundation for professional growth.”

But Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality says accountability in online teacher preparation is practically nonexistent. “If you look at the evidence, [online programs are] where a lot of teachers are getting their master’s degrees so they can climb the salary schedule with complete lack of rigor,” she said. “Why should we ask teachers to get degrees in name only? It’s wasting their time and money, and the only result I can see is that a lot of institutions are making a lot of money.”

Walsh says she hopes more online programs follow in the footsteps of programs like Western Governors University which earned the top spot in a joint ranking by NCTQ and U.S. News and World Report. “They make sure elementary teachers know how to teach reading. With student teaching, they don’t try to do that online. They make sure that person is assigned to a local mentor, and it’s well supervised,” she said. “It shows that when content takes precedence over convenience, you get a pretty good product.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about teacher preparation.

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