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teacher preparation law
Students in the undergraduate program at California State University Northridge take notes as their classmates practice lessons they planned about phonics. Credit: Jackie Mader

Of the myriad problems facing teacher preparation, one piece of information explains a large part of the reason why the Dept. of Education’s new teacher prep regulations serve as a necessary and indeed hopeful development.

The U.S. swamps other nations in terms of the number of institutions providing teacher preparation (roughly three times the number in both Finland and Canada, adjusting for population differences).

It suggests a field that is, if nothing else, highly inefficient and seemingly ungovernable.

Related: To increase teacher diversity, ignore selectivity of teacher education programs?

“A field that is, if nothing else, highly inefficient and seemingly ungovernable.”

For decades, these same institutions have independently set their own enrollment targets regardless of how many teachers schools actually need, with the result that they prepare far too many teachers in some areas (namely elementary teachers), while schools are left clamoring for teachers needed in other areas (like special education).

Half of these institutions not only lack national accreditation but don’t see its absence as a problem, unheard of in any other professional field of study.

Drilling down further to what gets taught, most of the courses in these institutions routinely disregard essential content informed by scientific evidence — instead encouraging professors to decide on content for themselves no matter how thinly grounded in research.

Related: How do we stop the exodus of minority teachers?

Amid this anarchy are some real gems. These are programs which just offer exceptional training. The problem is that they often go unrecognized and definitely unheralded — as many of them cannot be found at the top of other college rankings.

So how can federal regulations make order out of chaos?

First, they arrive at a singularly opportune moment — when the winds of change are blowing from every direction, including from within. It’s certainly not just NCTQ raising the ruckus. The last five years have elicited unprecedented activity, with no fewer than 44 states passing significant teacher prep regulations.

And what may be the biggest disruptor of them all is 30 percent drop in enrollments in teacher prep — for reasons that are anyone’s guess, but which surely include the poor reputation of teacher prep. As anyone knows who has managed a budget, institutions are likely more willing to make changes when confronted with fiscal pressures.

Related: We’d be better at math if the U.S. borrowed these four ideas for training teachers from Finland, Japan and China

It’s not that the final version of these regulations doesn’t bear the marks of heavy compromise, but on balance the federal regulations are generally sensible and respectful of the parameters of federal authority.

For example it’s not a bad thing that the education department ultimately decided not to require student test scores of programs’ graduates to be used in evaluating program quality, suggesting states could apply other outcome measures in their place.

The use of value-added measures is fraught with methodological difficulties when assessing program quality. States have to consider data collected on a graduate going out five or more years to reach the critical mass of data needed—hardly fair to programs. In reality, value-added measures only produce meaningful results for the few programs turning out huge numbers of graduates each year or those who are clear outliers.

Related: The exhausting life of a first-year teacher

The requirement that states annually survey principals and first-year teachers has real merit. Many programs already engage in this practice but this will for the first time a common survey will need to be used, allowing for better program comparison.

There will also be much better information about teacher supply, employment, and retention rates, hopefully ending the current reliance on conjecture to predict when there’s about to be a teacher shortage.

The only aspect of the regulations that is absolutely without merit is the Department’s decision to drop its earlier requirement that programs raise their admissions standards, appeasing institutions screaming about the impact raising standards will have on diversity.

Related: Will controversial new tests for teachers make the profession even more overwhelmingly white?

Not only is this denigrating to African American and Hispanic students — implying that a teaching career is only available to them if standards are kept intolerably low — but the consequence of an open door policy is a death knell to programs’ ability to raise the rigor and quality of instruction. It perpetuates the low status of the education major on college campuses.

Kate Walsh is the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

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