GREAT Act Q&A, part 2

June 28, 2011

Last Wednesday, I blogged about Senate Bill 1250, the GREAT Teachers and Principals Act, designed to create and support high-performing teacher and principal “training academies.” The introduction of this legislation sparked a wave of media coverage, which in turn generated a number of questions and discussions over Twitter, Facebook, and in the blogosphere. So, in the spirit of the Q&A theme used in my original post, I thought I would answer a few additional questions and share some of the interesting comments and stories from the past week.

How did this legislation come about?

In March 2011, Norman Atkins, the founder of Relay School of Education (formerly Teacher U) and Tim Knowles, the director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, joined Julie Mikuta (the NewSchools’ partner who leads our human-capital investment work) and yours truly for a day on Capitol Hill to discuss ways of improving teacher preparation. During our meetings with Members of Congress, we discussed principles we believe should guide the training of teachers and the innovative programs that Norman and Tim lead, which emphasize the “output” of student learning-as opposed to “inputs” like regulating the number of credit hours a prospective teacher must earn. Senator Michael Bennet from Colorado, the former Superintendent of Denver Public Schools, was particularly enthusiastic about the need for better teacher training and agreed to champion legislation to support these programs. With the help of Sen. Bennet’s tireless staff, soon Senators Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Mikulski (D-Md.) agreed to co-sponsor, and a few weeks later Senators Kirk (R-Ill.) and Landrieu (D-La.) signed on as well. As Ed Week describes them, this is a “pretty powerful” bipartisan coalition – and we’re hoping it grows as this legislation moves forward. We also received tremendous support and feedback from existing teacher and principal preparation programs and advocacy organizations.

Must the candidates for the academies already have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree? Will these academies be degree-conferring? How will you ensure academy graduates qualify as “highly qualified teachers” under NCLB, and meet state minimum requirements for advancement under their rules and regulations?

These three questions come from CStoermer, commenting on last week’s Ed Week story, and they’re all good ones. First, technically there is no requirement that candidates for teacher or principal academies have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree; that said, academies must employ a “rigorous selection process that reviews prior academic performance or professional experience” for purposes of admission. So as a practical matter, I think most-if not all-programs will end up having a de facto bachelor’s requirement. Second, an academy may confer a degree if it is already an institution of higher education (or affiliated with one); programs that are not institutes of higher education, however, will instead provide “certificates of completion.” Finally, our hope is that this legislation will nudge the policy conversation away from measuring teacher qualifications (the epitome of an input) toward measuring teacher effectiveness at improving student learning (the proper output). This is a state-based program, and thus participating states are required to create special authorizing entities that will set forth the specific expectations of approved academies.

What do teachers think about the bill?

On a purely anecdotal level, the reactions have ranged from unreservedly enthusiastic to openly skeptical. Many teachers who reached out to me like the selectivity and clinical training components of the bill. For example: “The part I liked best about the academy is where it’s specified that candidates are ‘rigorously selected.’ In my experience, it seems anyone can go to school to be a teacher…I soon realized many of my peers were in a teaching program because it felt easy.” At the same time, many teachers wanted to know more about being held “accountable for student achievement,” and those on Twitter seemed particularly worried the legislation is all about testing. Just to be clear, the legislation requires programs to enter into contracts with states wherein they will produce teachers (and principals) with a “demonstrated track record of success in getting students on track to being college and career ready, based on multiple measures of student achievement” (emphasis added). In other words, this bill preserves flexibility while demanding accountability, and doesn’t impose any particular measure of student achievement. Finally, I’m pretty sure we aren’t going to persuade @traceydouglas, who tweeted that the GREAT Act “might make you barf a little, too.”

And what about institutions of higher education, what do they think?

At present, we’re thrilled to have the support of a variety of folks from the higher-education community, including USC Rossier School of Education, Dr. Deborah Ball (dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan), and the National Center for Urban Education at the University of District of Columbia (to name only a few). Given that institutions of higher education are eligible for funding under the GREAT Act, provided they meet the selectivity, training, and accountability requirements, we hope to add additional schools of education to our ever-growing list of supporters (updated list is here).

Anything else?

Be sure to read the op-ed by Christina Hall, Jennifer Green, Tim Knowles, and NewSchools CEO Ted Mitchell featured in Politico. Coming soon I hope to provide additional information on a conference call to discuss the GREAT Act in further detail. And we’re always happy to add supporters or answer questions, so feel free to email me at [email protected].