Teacher preparation: Limits of top-down regulations

In October, the U.S. Department of Education released new teacher preparation regulations.  The regulations’ aspirations include strengthening accountability in the teacher preparation sector and encouraging the use of data for continuous improvement within individual prep programs.

Both aspirations are noble.

However, the regulations contain little nuance delineating the interconnected, yet distinct, differences between the goals.

It is worth remembering that the K-12 sector learned the hard way (think teacher evaluation and high stakes school accountability) that there is not always a straight line between accountability and authentic buy-in for the use of data for continuous improvement. So, why would the experience of the teacher prep sector be different?

As we work to ensure the teacher prep sector is empowered to embrace continuous improvement, I offer two insights.

First, recognize that accountability efforts won’t – and shouldn’t – capture the data that will matter most for teacher preparation programs.

Data collected through accountability efforts and the feedback loops created will only be a starting point of the data needed by programs to make informed operational or programmatic changes. And we should recognize that accountability data are best used for accountability purposes. Whereas, data for continuous improvement efforts are often different (and likely much broader and more granular).

The foundation’s recent work has been to understand what data would be most valued by programs for continuous improvement.

In July, our partner New Venture Fund convened a stakeholder group consisting of practitioners from diverse teacher preparation programs, school districts, and state agencies from across the country. Participants were put through a rigorous process to identify a comprehensive set of questions that encompass the spectrum of programmatic questions that would matter for a teacher prep organizations seeking improvement.

From these facilitated sessions, 91 data use cases were inventoried that document the insights critical to programs during teacher candidate pre-enrollment, enrollment, and post-enrollment. Only a subset of these data would make sense for states to use for accountability purposes. Many of the data use cases will require directly addressing a long-standing barrier between teacher preparation programs and school districts; work states like Tennessee, Louisiana, among others, have already enabled.

Second, mandates do not solve for the hard work of programs’ cultural change.

While states can require certain data is collection and shared between school districts and programs, it is impossible to mandate organizational change.

While accountability efforts can be imminently helpful to spur action and make data better available, they are at best imperfect for inspiring authentic change within programs.

The hardest part of helping improve the teacher preparation sector will not be the creation of new accountability systems, building new technology solutions, or enabling appropriate data sharing between organizations. The toughest challenge will be to build the trust, willingness to change, and buy-in from administration, faculty, and staff to build the culture, processes, and capacity to change organizations from within.

With focus, the time is ripe to redouble the effort to learn what it takes to develop great teachers for all kids.

The work ahead

The good news is that there is early, encouraging momentum among leaders of some teacher prep programs who are stepping up to drive sectoral change. For example, members of Deans for Impact are committed to guiding principles including becoming more data informed, outcomes focused, transparent, and accountable.

These leaders will be among the first to answer critical questions of how data can be used to drive continuous improvement. They will help the sector avoid having data being done “to them” as opposed to data serving as a guide “with them” in their work.

With lessons from these early leaders, and a clear eye on the opportunities and limitations of the new federal regulations, the sector is poised for dramatic advancements.

The teacher preparation sector remains in the earliest stages of understanding what drives quality. With focus, the time is ripe to redouble the effort to learn what it takes to develop great teachers for all kids.