ATLANTA — A new evaluation system will, for the first time, measure teacher-prep programs on how well their graduates do, which is keeping state regulators and college deans busy preparing for the change.
For generations, colleges could retain their permit to produce future teachers even if those they graduated were lousy once they got in the classroom, pretty much just as long as the college maintained accreditation.
“Up until this new evaluation system, the focus had been on how many hours did you take in this course, what textbooks were used, how many hours you were in the field. It was based on input,” said Cindi Chance, dean of the college of education at Georgia Regents University.
Under the new approach, half of the annual measure will be based on the test scores of students in the classrooms of each college’s graduates. Other factors will be grades teachers get on a video of them in class, tests they take and whether they keep their jobs.
Chance headed the association of education-college deans who helped devise the evaluation mechanism and acknowledges that it won’t immediately improve public education. For one thing, most teachers are not recent college graduates, so they won’t benefit from improvements by the colleges. For another, the state Professional Standards Commission and the Department of Education are still putting the database together to tie students to their teacher’s colleges.
Some preliminary information is already coming in.
“Quite frankly, all of us were surprised when we started looking at the data,” Chance said.
Many teachers knew their subjects but couldn’t teach, she said.
The person behind the change is U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who insisted that states applying for the Race to the Top grants change the way colleges are measured.
“If we are going to improve teaching and learning in America, we have to improve the training and support that we give our teachers,” he said.
Georgia won $400 million from the grant in 2009 and has been developing its revised evaluation system ever since. The delay is due to having a 40-person committee of educators from various levels coming to agreement on the mechanism.
Then the Standards Commission that regulates Georgia’s 36 teacher-prep colleges had to formally adopt rules for its implementation while the Georgia Education Department developed the student tests and the database.
The commission rarely revokes any college’s permission to turn out future teachers, but the handful of times it’s done it in recent years is enough to get their attention.
“We don’t have anybody with their head buried in the sand thinking it will all go away,” said Penney McRoy, the assistant division director at the commission charged with getting the evaluations in place.
Indeed, the deans say they’re on board, for the most part.
“We’re certainly focusing on that,” said Charles Ruch, interim dean of Armstrong State University’s education college.
Across town at Savannah State University, the interim dean, Marshalita Peterson, expressed optimism.
“The School of Teacher Education at Savannah State University is in full support of evaluation processes that will improve the effectiveness of teachers that we produce, with the ultimate goal being to enhance our teacher-education program, preparation of our teacher candidates, and quality education for K-12 students in Georgia,” she said.
However, colleges like Savannah State University that produce small numbers of teachers each year could face the risk that even if just a few wind up in poorly run schools or with a classroom of difficult youngsters, their student performance could throw off the results for the entire college, according to Steven Davis, associate professor of education at Jacksonville University, which won’t be subject to the Georgia evaluations.
“The long and short of it is that the work of these deans is going to result in the elimination of small, private programs like us,” he said, accusing the Georgia deans of yielding to political pressure.
At one of Georgia’s largest teacher-prep institutions, there are also questions about the evaluation.
Jack Parish, associate dean at the University of Georgia’s education college, warns that several factors could skew the results, even if the information might help the college tune up its program: working conditions, local district policies and funding.
“We have exceptional faculty members and excellent programs in the College of Education that we believe effectively prepare teachers and other educators for their work in schools throughout Georgia and beyond,” he said.
“Hopefully, the (evaluation) data will further confirm our belief.”
According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, UGA and the state’s other schools could be better. In the council’s latest ranking, UGA ranked 82 for its graduate-secondary training and 193 for its undergraduate-secondary training. Its undergraduate-elementary program ranked 165, and its graduate-elementary program ranked way down at 360.
The council ranked Armstrong’s undergraduate-elementary program at 345, and its other programs didn’t make the list. GRU came in at 265 for its graduate-secondary program and 297 for its undergraduate-secondary program. It’s others didn’t make the list either.
Georgia’s best ranking program was Clayton State University at 32 for graduate and undergraduate secondary education.
Kate Walsh, president of the council, said many education professors ignore research that shows the most effective instructional techniques they should be giving their future teachers. And she warns that Georgia’s new evaluation process won’t automatically make a difference.
“Not that it’s a bad idea, but it doesn’t write the prescription. It just tells you that you’re sick,” she said.
Louisiana has been using a similar process for the longest of any state, and she says it hasn’t been as helpful as officials there had hoped. Instead, she says evaluations like her organization performs provide the prescription for improvement, namely the proven techniques.
Another skeptic, for a different reason, is the University System of Georgia’s associate vice chancellor for educator preparation, Robert Michael. In a five-page letter to Secretary Duncan, he warned that judging colleges on the standardized test scores of their graduates’ students could backfire.
“Measuring the effectiveness of educator-preparation programs using student achievement data is, arguably, the most controversial and tenuous component of the proposed regulations and certainly is not supported by research,” he wrote, adding that the tests weren’t designed to evaluate teachers or their colleges.
Besides, he said, there’s research showing that school district policies and operations have a bigger impact than the teacher.
It was a warning that UGA’s Parish agrees with.
The commissioners implementing Georgia’s evaluations recognizes there may be wrinkles in the plan, said McRoy. That’s why they are taking their time gearing up and why they are open to modifications along the way, she said.