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Credit: Pat Wingert

The new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act could introduce new ways to prepare teachers for the classroom that bypass traditional programs.

The bill, signed by President Obama on Dec. 10, includes provisions that would allow states to set up new degree-granting academies for teachers outside of traditional higher education systems and would also encourage the creation of residency programs, in which teacher recruits are paired with veterans for a year of in-classroom training in addition to their coursework.

Alternative programs like these are already becoming more popular, especially in states with looming teacher shortages, such as California. But the new law might spur an even faster expansion, experts said.

And that expansion is likely to be controversial, Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week pointed out in a story first reporting the new programs.

“The idea is a bit like the ‘charterization’ of ed. schools,” he wrote, referring to publicly funded but privately run charter schools. “It’s the brainchild of folks at the New Schools Venture Fund, and it has in its mind’s eye programs like the Relay Graduate School of Education, the Match Teacher Residency, and Urban Teachers.”

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In particular, the proposal for new state teacher academies has raised concerns.

“Some people are very worried that it’s a lowering of a standard in an enterprise where people try and raise standards,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, a think tank, and a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University.

“The way the language is couched, you read it, it sounds so fabulous for prospective teachers and education generally. And then you stop and think, ‘Wait a minute. We’re talking about using money to support teacher preparation programs that aren’t accountable,’” said Pamela Carroll, dean of the University of Central Florida College of Education and Human Performance.

“It’s worrying not so much because we fear losing prospective students to quicker, easier routes, but because we do what we do because we really are committed to preparing the very best teachers we can,” she added. “It’s worrying that there would be programs developed that wouldn’t be subject to the same kind of accountability that we hold ourselves to.”

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Kenneth Zeichner, professor emeritus in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote in a critical piece in the Washington Post that “the most troubling aspect of the new legislation in regard to teacher preparation is its attempt to lower standards for teacher education programs that prepare teachers for high-poverty schools. It does this by exempting teacher preparation academies from what are referred to as ‘unnecessary restrictions on the methods of the academy.’”

“The way the language is couched [in the Every Student Succeeds Act], you read it, it sounds so fabulous for prospective teachers and education generally. And then you stop and think, ‘Wait a minute. We’re talking about using money to support teacher preparation programs that aren’t accountable.’”

“Imagine the federal government supporting medical preparation academies or other professional preparation academies where the faculty would not be required to have the academic qualifications required by the states and accrediting bodies,” he continued.

Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and former president of Teachers College, Columbia University (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit based at Teachers College), is reserving judgment on the law’s promotion of new alternative programs to see if they will be held to the same accountability standards as traditional programs in universities.

“Regulations governing teacher preparation should apply to all programs, whether they are traditional education schools or non-traditional education providers,” Levine said in a statement. “Effective preparation, no matter who provides it, requires a strong academic program, an intensive clinical experience, and rigorous mentoring.”

(New regulations for teacher preparation programs that the Department of Education is set to release could hold the answer to whether the regulations will apply across the board to traditional programs and alternatives.)

Related: Once aimed at charter school teachers, a teacher prep program expands — and calls for more accountability

Sandi Jacobs, a senior vice president at the National Council on Teacher Quality, said the state academies could add some needed flexibility to the teacher preparation field. “We’ve seen some examples of programs that are trying to move to a competency-based approach and that becomes like fitting a square peg in a round hole” because of accountability requirements in some states, she said.

“I think the need to pay attention to the accountability side of this is absolutely right, but to assume that it can’t work, I don’t think that there’s any reason to jump to that conclusion,” she added.

But even those concerned about the possible lowering of standards at the academies were heartened by the law’s promotion of training in which new recruits spend significant time overseen by an experienced teacher in a real classroom. Linda Darling-Hammond called the residency program idea “an innovation that is proving to be reasonably successful in a lot of places.”

“I think some places will take up these ideas and put them to good use,” she said. “There’s some cause for optimism, and there’s some cause for concern. That’s what you end up whenever you make sausage.”

And critics of the teacher preparation provisions said overall, the law’s passage was good for American schools.

“Like so many other people, I do see it as a very positive move in many ways, in terms of the fact that Congress has heard the public and teachers in saying that we really don’t need to confuse education testing and measurement,” said Carroll of the University of Central Florida. “Those really are two different things, and that’s reflected in this act.”

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

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