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  1. Education

Obama administration releases regulations for teacher-prep programs

The U.S. Education Department published regulations Wednesday governing programs that prepare new K-12 teachers, a long-delayed effort meant to ensure that graduates emerge ready for the nation's classrooms.

The new regulations, at least five years in the making, require each state to issue annual ratings for teacher-prep programs within their borders. The ratings aim to serve as a snapshot of how novice teachers perform after graduation, offering prospective teachers and school district recruiters a more accurate picture of which programs are successful at producing strong educators and which are not.

Obama administration officials also hope the ratings prod training programs — long criticized as cash cows for universities that produce ill-prepared candidates — to improve.

"The system we have for training teachers lacks rigor, is out of step with the times, and is given to extreme grade inflation that leaves teachers unprepared and their future students at risk," former Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote this month in an open letter to America's college presidents. Duncan stepped down in 2015, four years after starting the Obama administration's effort to overhaul teacher-prep regulations.

The effort proceeded more slowly than the administration anticipated, in part because of deep divisions about the role of standardized test scores in gauging the effectiveness of a new teacher - and thus the effectiveness of the training program that teacher attended.

The Education Department previously pushed for a "significant part" of ratings to come from the performance of recent graduates' students, as measured by those students' standardized tests and other measures of achievement. In theory, the agency argued, a strong teacher training program should produce new teachers whose students demonstrate progress on standardized tests.

But that proposal generated a storm of criticism. It was released in 2014 amid a growing backlash against overtesting in the nation's public schools. Teachers unions argued that test scores are often arbitrary and are an unfair metric for judging effectiveness. The American Council on Education, an association of colleges and universities, and others argued that the administration was overreaching its authority.

In the regulations to be released Wednesday, the Education Department still requires states to judge teacher training programs based on whether students are learning. But the agency pulled back from its emphasis on standardized testing as an essential measure of student achievement: The new regulations leave it up to states to decide how to measure student learning and how much that variable should count toward an overall rating.

It's unclear whether the revisions will mollify critics.

Proponents of the federal government's approach, including some education school deans, say the regulations will help them get their hands on information about their graduates' job performance that they need to recognize weak spots and improve.

The final regulations leave intact other key pieces of the administration's initial proposal: Ratings must include surveys of graduates and employers as well as data on how many of the program's alumni get hired into their chosen fields and how long they stay in their jobs.

The new requirements apply to both traditional programs based at universities and alternative-certification routes, such as Teach for America.

States must rate programs "low-performing," "at-risk," or "effective"; those rated less than effective for two out of any three years will be stripped of their eligibility for federal Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, or TEACH, grants — up to $4,000 a year for aspiring teachers who commit to working in high-needs schools after graduation.

States must introduce ratings on a pilot basis in the 2017-2018 school year, but the first year a program could lose access to TEACH grants would be 2021-2022. Approximately 30,000 students receive TEACH grants each year, compared with more than 400,000 enrolled in traditional and alternative certification programs.

The new regulations will be made public Wednesday as Education Secretary John King Jr. visits the education school at the University of Southern California, where he is expected to deliver remarks.

"As a nation, there is so much more we can do to help prepare our teachers and create a diverse educator workforce," King said in a statement Tuesday.

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