Accountability: A Gift to Teacher Education

In recent years, accountability has become a very controversial term in teacher education, producing knee-jerk reactions and overreactions pro and con. Among critics, on one hand, there is a tendency -- sometimes mistakenly, sometimes deliberately -- to confuse accountability with the methods used to gauge it and the uses to which the resulting data can be applied. Among advocates, on the other hand, there is a comparable proclivity to embrace methods that are not yet practically feasible and applications that are not justified by the quality of the data available.

The critics are rejecting the inevitable. They can attack and even slow down the adoption of accountability measures, but they can't stop it. The advocates are promoting the aspirational rather than the real. They can call for and even accelerate the adoption of accountability measures, but they can't demand what doesn't yet exist in terms of data.

However, accountability is and has been inescapable. It always will be. It has been a reality in one form or another since our earliest schools and colleges. What has changed in recent years, however, is what teacher education is being held accountable for, the means for assessing those things, and the ways in which the findings are being employed. This is a product of the U.S. transition from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy, which shifts the focus of accountability from the process of education -- courses, credit hours, and seat time -- to its outcome, student learning. This is changing both the job of teacher and the expectations for schools, which also requires that education schools modernize their teacher education and school leadership programs.

Given these new realities, it was a certainty that the criteria, means and applications of accountability would need to be rethought. The nation's teacher education programs have not taken the lead in doing this; government has stepped in to fill the void.

Late last year, the U.S. Department of Education issued draft regulations for the oversight of teacher education. They took this action only after convening a broad panel of educators, which met over an extended period and proved unable to reach agreement on accountability measures. As would be expected, the regulations were greeted with rejection by many teacher education programs and with organized opposition by the trade associations. These efforts could slow down accountability once again.

But if this were to happen, and I hope it won't, teacher education will pay an extraordinarily high price. It will encourage the growth of the now-burgeoning non-university-based teacher education programs, strengthen the hands of teacher education's harshest critics, confirm doubts in the minds of agnostics, and perhaps invite even stronger regulation in the future.

These regulations are an effort to accomplish what teacher education has failed to do. The real need is for teacher education to clean its own house and set accountability standards for the profession. It needs to do this because rigorous self-regulation is the hallmark of excellence and health in every profession. The internal exercise of explicit standards establishes a quality floor for the profession and builds confidence in its external constituencies, many of which now have deep concerns. It also diminishes the need and likelihood of external regulation.

But, perhaps most important of all, accountability measures are imperative for teacher education programs themselves because this is a time of profound, continuous and accelerating change. As programs undertake modernization, which all must do, they need compelling evidence to understand how well they are doing and the areas in which action is necessary.

Teacher education has the capacity to accomplish this right now through its new accrediting association, the Council for the Accreditation of Education Professions (CAEP). For the record, I serve on CAEP's board and joined because of its potential to establish and implement quality standards for the profession. CAEP has done what has not been done before. It has successfully brought together the teacher education community -- colleges and universities, professional and trade associations, external publics, and more -- and this large Noah's ark commission agreed upon the standards that should guide teacher education in the future in admissions, program, and outcomes.

CAEP is a gift to teacher education. It allowed the profession to set its own rigorous standards and, if successful in implementing them, will demonstrate to the world that teacher education is a profession capable of self-regulation. It will also enable universities to prepare teachers and school leaders with the 21st-century skills and knowledge our children and nation so desperately need.

As CAEP implements its new standards, it will need the teacher education community -- providers, both accredited and not yet accredited, as well as professional and trade associations -- to embrace it with enthusiasm. It will be easy to carp on the inevitable missteps that accompany the roll-out of new initiatives. Some will use these as an opportunity to try to water down the agreed-upon standards and retreat from accountability. That cannot be permitted to happen. It is critical that the education community work with CAEP, counsel it on what can be done better, and make it successful. There is too much at stake not to do this. The risk is that if teacher education proves unable to establish high standards and a willingness to be accountable, it will lose its now-eroding franchise to educate teachers, and others will dictate its accountability standards.