A Brighter Future

Insight into Improvements in Teacher Preparation

As scrutiny over the quality of K-12 education increases and attracting high-caliber teachers becomes more difficult, one organization is working to improve teacher education and ensure brighter futures for our nation’s youth. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), the only national accrediting body for educator preparation programs in the U.S., is focused on ensuring excellence in teacher preparation through evidence-based accreditation.

CAEP President Christopher Koch
CAEP President Christopher Koch

INSIGHT recently spoke with CAEP President Christopher Koch about issues affecting the teaching profession and ways to increase the quality and diversity of educators.

Q: From 1971 to 2012, the percentage of undergraduate education degrees conferred dropped from 21 to 5.9 percent, and many states are now facing teacher shortages. What factors have led to this, and how is CAEP working with member schools to address this issue?

A: There has been a lot of discussion and documentation of the many factors that may contribute to shortages: college students are pursuing higher-paying majors, criticism of the teaching profession and the quality of K-12 education in the U.S., low salaries for teachers, and the quality of support for teachers in the classroom. There’s also a whole other set of circumstances that contribute to shortages, such as how local districts are organized, and sometimes shortages are geographic, based on where districts and schools are.

Our primary role as an accreditor is to ensure the programs that prepare teachers are evaluated against standards and that [schools] are doing that well. We’re trying to elevate the profession and ensure [positive] outcomes for K-12 learners.

CAEP redesigned accreditation to meet the needs of the 21st century. We require a more rigorous teacher education program, including an intensive clinical experience. Another change from past accreditation is the requirement for outcome data regarding metrics such as the impact on K-12 student performance. Our standards are very much tied to learning outcomes for students, and that’s a new approach from an accreditor. … That focus has changed the conversation around accreditation and what’s most important.

I also think it’s essential to note that while there is a downturn in enrollment and teaching overall, there are colleges that are increasing enrollment; Texas Tech University is an example. And in Illinois, there are a lot of institutions that are thinking differently. It’s important to look at those education preparation institutions and programs and see what they’re doing.

Some institutions are very specific in saying, “Recruitment is not our job; we sort of take who comes.” However, recruitment is actually in our standards, so it’s something that’s evaluated as part of the accreditation process. It could be that [a school] doesn’t pass the standard at all, or it may have some effort in play that it needs to strengthen … and so it would have to address that before it could be accredited, or if it was provisionally accredited, then it would have to address that within a certain amount of time. So it’s something that we track, that they have to report on annually, and that we are going to be looking at going forward.

Q: What value does accreditation bring to teacher preparation programs and schools, and how does CAEP’s process help them?

A: CAEP is a new accreditor — we merged two prior entities into CAEP — so our standards are fairly new. Around 12 institutions have gone through the new standards thus far. Most programs want to do a good job, particularly if they’re seeking accreditation. It’s voluntary; they don’t have to do it unless the state requires them to. So they’re coming to us, and they’re trying to get better. Accreditation will mean a higher bar going forward for people who want to do the extra work.

It is continuous improvement. That’s something that a lot of our institutions and programs value because it allows them to be reflective and think about what they’re doing and how to do it better. And there are exemplars now — even on the issue of recruitment — that have demonstrated they want to do this. I’m thinking of one small private institution we worked with in Illinois that had a 50 percent male minority teaching pool; they did that through very purposeful actions and interventions. It doesn’t just happen on its own; you have to work at it and set goals, reflect on that and try to improve.

Q: As the diversity of the K-12 student population continues to increase, with 45 percent of students now minorities, the teaching workforce remains more than 80 percent white. How is CAEP working to increase the diversity of the teaching workforce?

A: Diversity [is] woven throughout our standards, but we also have very specific standards, like recruitment data has to reflect diversity in the candidates coming into an institution. We’re looking at diverse enrollments in teacher preparation programs compared to other colleges and the entire institution. There’s also a transparency piece to [accreditation], so specific metrics and goals have to be reported and publicly shared — as well as accreditation decisions — so that people have an idea of how progress is being made.

We’ve run into a lot of discourse on this issue … so we put in benchmarks around the academic ability of candidates coming into teaching as reflective of the upper 50 percent of those attending programs. We [experienced] a ton of concern and pushback around that particular component because people were worried it would negatively impact diverse candidates. … You have to have mastery of content in order to teach, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good teacher.

When I was state superintendent in Illinois, a lot of our institutions that were preparing teachers would say to me, “We’re having to spend a lot of time getting these candidates up to speed through remediation, and it’s costing us a lot of money. You need to do a better job in K-12 because the achievement gap is too large.” And I said, “You’re right, and here’s what we’re doing to work on that.” They resented getting candidates who were not performing where they needed to be. We run into this now. In the same way that institutions say recruitment isn’t their responsibility, some say remediation isn’t their responsibility. But there are programs that demonstrate a willingness to bring candidates in and address their learning needs [in order for them to be] proficient in the content they plan to teach.

We’ve done a lot of specific outreach; we’ve been vetting the standards. We met with historically black institutions, and we’ve been reaching out to a lot of diverse groups to figure out ways in which we might be able to modify our standards to allow for remediation to take place and to make sure the targets we put in place are reasonable. … We want to make sure institutions are [progressing] with us and are trying to address the diversity of their candidates.

Q: With the introduction of new national “performance tests” for would-be teachers — which cost more money and require more time — many are concerned that low-income and minority students will be deterred from entering the profession. How can states ensure that teachers meet high standards while also addressing issues of access and affordability to ensure minority representation in the field? 

A: Performance assessments are good for a number of reasons; one is that they require an application of skills and knowledge prior to actually doing the job. [When I began my career as a teacher], I was put into a classroom not really prepared, and none of my kids were reading at grade level. I didn’t have instructions on the teaching of reading. So even though I was licensed and certified, I didn’t have the skills I needed to do that job well, and performance assessments could have helped in determining that.

One way that states are trying to address this is by [eliminating] other assessments that perhaps aren’t as relevant. When I was superintendent of Illinois, we had some tests that certainly weren’t as viable at demonstrating application of skills and knowledge. By [eliminating] those, you can cut down the cost in lieu of something that’s more expensive, because performance assessments are invariably more expensive. But I do think it’s important for the profession that we have them, just as it’s important for a pilot or a surgeon, for example. Teachers impact hundreds and hundreds of kids, and we have to care enough about that.

Q: How important is gaining understanding of and exposure to students in underserved communities to developing effective ways to engage and educate these students?

A: This is really important, and what teacher preparation does not accomplish is often left to local school districts to remedy — and this isn’t fair. … What students really want and need are individuals with knowledge and skills to be able to do the job, who authentically care for them, and who can make a connection and inspire them. This sounds simple, but it’s really complex, hard work, and a variety of experiences, tools, and assessments have to be used to get [teachers] to that point.

Some of the districts I worked with in Illinois were sending teachers out to have family sessions prior to the school year beginning so they could get a sense of what home life was like, what the communities they were serving [were like], and the kinds of things that were important to them. That’s really important context for teachers to understand.

Q: What are your thoughts on programs that recruit new teachers by offering to reduce or completely pay off their student loan debt if they agree to teach in underserved areas for a set number of years?

A: I haven’t looked at the research on the effectiveness of those. I think that can help to get people in, but teachers still need support within [the school] building. It’s not just a monetary thing. It’s also [about] having a professional community that you can interact with and that will support you.

We have to make sure we’re supporting teachers when they come into the job because a lot of times, especially initially, they are put into classrooms without adequate support and without enough clinical experience. That is why those things are in CAEP’s standards, because if you don’t [support them], the likelihood that they’ll stay and serve in those schools will [decrease]. … We’ve got to be intentional with those kinds of things if we’re going to build the profession that we want.

Q: How important do you think having well-prepared, knowledgeable teachers in K-12 classrooms is to inspiring young people to pursue teaching careers? 

A: It’s important. One of the things that made me sad in my latter years as Illinois superintendent was hearing from local superintendents or principals who said, “I love education, I love the field, but for my own kids, I’m starting to tell them to think about other careers.” We have to do more promoting and thinking about teaching, and there are a lot of reasons I think teaching became a profession that isn’t as respected as well as it could be. … I think it’s important that high-quality teachers inspire others to do it. It’s a career I chose, and one that I have no regrets [about], and I think it’s important to encourage young people to continue to consider it.●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. For more information, visit caepnet.org.