Friday, April 25, 2014

Arne Duncan Announces New-Old Policy---Tying Teacher Prep to Test Scores

The Obama Administration announced its latest plan today that would tie federal funding of teacher preparation programs to test scores. Duncan and the Obama Administration are seeking to place the federal government in the middle of teacher preparation. I suspect this measure will only make it more difficult to convince young people to become teachers and educators, and it will likely have some perverse affects on teacher preparation in this country just as the use of testing for high stakes decisions has had on schools and classrooms.

On closer examination, this proposal contradicts research, logic, and common sense.
  • There is no evidence that using high stakes tests as a means to improve teacher preparation programs will work. There is plenty of evidence that using tests (as has been done under NCLB and Race to the Top) to make high stakes decisions has had quite a few unintended consequences in schools and classrooms. These consequences have included things like the over-emphasis on test-prep, teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum to test content, cutting of arts programs, use of programmed instruction, and cheating, among many others.  One can only imagine what those effects will be on teacher preparation programs when tests are used to determine continued federal funding. For example, teacher candidates will now perhaps be well-versed in things like test-prep and teaching to the test, as opposed to engaging students in authentic instruction. Perhaps teaching candidates can also learn how to narrow the curriculum so that it focuses only on what is tested . The effects of using high stakes testing to make high stakes decisions is well-documented in the research, and adding testing stakes to teacher preparation will most likely affect those programs in adverse ways just as it has in schools and classrooms.
  • Surprisingly, the Obama administration's idea of tying test scores to teacher preparation programs comes even after the American Statistical Association recently stated that value-added formulas should be used with caution, because teachers only account for less than 15 percent  (or even less in some studies) of the variability in test scores. In other words, most of what happens in the classroom is beyond a teacher's control. Perhaps the Obama administration is still looking to find "Superteachers" as John Kuhn has called them who are capable of performing miracles. Unfortunately, I am afraid there are so few, if any, especially in an environment, which his policies have created, that is so hostile to teachers and the education profession in general. The important tenet of accountability is that you hold individuals accountable for that which is in their direct control. This policy violates that tenet in many ways.
  • Many state tests aren't of high enough quality to be even considered for using in this high stakes manner, and the use of commercial tests like ACT and SAT makes little sense because they haven't been designed for this purpose. Add the fact that, once again, there are entirely too many teachers not subject to test scores. That's the same issue with his Race to the Top and NCLB waiver policy. State tests were mostly designed to tell what students know, not tell how well teachers are teaching. Once again, Arne Duncan and the Obama administration are pushing for using tests in still another way for which they weren't designed.
  • This new policy of using test scores to evaluate teacher prep programs should also have some interesting implications in practice. I could easily see this policy exacerbating the problem of getting good teachers in high needs schools. In addition, I could also see this policy affecting which school's graduates choose to teach in as well. It's common sense. Are you going to select teaching in a school where test scores are abysmally low, and your job is to somehow miraculously to raise them? As a teacher prep program, are you going to encourage your graduates to teach in schools with historically low test scores? Perverse education policy often brings about perverse practice.
 As this Politico article points out, Duncan is expecting a great deal of opposition to this latest plan, (See Barack Obama Cracks Down on Poor Teacher Training.) How could he expect things to be different? Educators and parents grow tired of all the testing and emphasis on testing. What will be more interesting to see is whether he and  the rest of the Obama Administration will be willing to listen to educators on this matter. Sadly, the history of this administration and Arne Duncan probably provides that answer even as I ask the question.

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