New Higher Education Act proposals make changes, but are they significant for aspiring educators?


Until last week, Congress had made little movement to amend or overhaul the Higher Education Act (HEA) since the GOP-led House education committee approved the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity Through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act last December. But leading up to Congress’ August recess, three new bills were released that have implications for aspiring educators and the programs that prepare them.

The first was a proposal from House Democrats—the Aim Higher Act—to fully reauthorize HEA. And although the Senate education committee chair has signaled that they will not release a comprehensive rewrite of the law this year, two proposals drawn up by individual committee members could be indicators of what’s to come for Title II of the law, which currently largely focuses on enhancing quality at the preparatory and induction stages of educators’ careers.

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) introduced the Preparing and Retaining Education Professionals (PREP) Act, while Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Michael Bennet (D-CO), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Mark Warner (D-VA) introduced a bipartisan bill called the Teacher and School Leaders need Education and Development to be Empowered Resources in Schools (LEADER) Act.

All proposals, except the PROSPER Act which completely eliminates Title II, would make changes to align key definitions with those included in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), to more comprehensively include school leaders throughout the law, to expand Teacher Quality Partnership grants in different ways, and to modify accountability for preparation programs. The key changes that each bill would make are summarized below by topic.

Key Definitions

All three new proposals expand relevant definitions to include school leaders (for example, mentoring and induction programs that are currently only defined for teachers now also include school leaders) and/or add definitions for terms specific to school leaders (such as “School Leadership Skills” in the PREP Act). The LEADER Act would also update current law to allow—in addition to Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs)—nonprofits and other entities with a “demonstrated record of success” of providing alternative routes to teacher, principal, and other school leader certification to be eligible for grant funding.

All proposals update the Teacher Quality Partnership (TQP) grants definition of “Partner Institution”—currently defined as an IHE that has a teacher preparation program that partners with a high-need local education agency (LEA) or early childhood education program—to include school leader preparation programs. Where the bills differ is that the Aim Higher Act and the LEADER Act specify eligibility criteria for teacher preparation programs and school leader preparation programs separately, and include measures of effectiveness and job placement for school leaders, and the LEADER Act also expands the definition of “Partner Institution” to include private nonprofit organizations and LEAs, not just IHEs.

The PREP Act would narrow the pool of eligible high-need LEAs for TQP grants by increasing the threshold for the percentage of children from-low income families that need to be served by the LEA from 20 percent to 40 percent. The bill also expands the definition of High-Need LEAs to include those experiencing school leader or teacher shortages in critical areas such as special education, English language, STEM, and career and technical education, and LEAs with schools identified for additional support and improvement under ESSA (the Aim Higher Act would do the latter as well).

Teacher Quality Partnership (TQP)  Grants

The PROSPER Act includes one of the more significant deviations from current law, as it eliminates the TQP grants focused on supporting educator quality and replaces them with a grant program to expand access to apprenticeships.

At the other end of the spectrum, all three of the recent proposals retain and enhance the TQP grants. The House Democrat’s Aim Higher Act expands the TQP grants, renamed as the Teacher and School Leader Quality Partnership Grants, and enhances the program so that funds can be used to improve pre-baccalaureate programs so that future teachers are trained in evidence-based pedagogy and receive clinical experiences, to support residency programs for future teachers and school leaders, and to establish teacher leader development programs.

The LEADER Act also expands the TQP program—renamed the Teacher, Principal, and Other School Leader Quality Enhancement program—to fund the preparation and support of teacher leaders, principals, and other school leaders. The bill also allows for up to 10 percent of grant funds to encourage LEAs to design high-quality PD informed by the clinical experiences of educators in training in those LEAs, and to create a feedback loop between educator preparation programs and LEAs to ensure strong development of prospective and novice teachers and school leaders. The LEADER Act would prioritize partnerships that have the strongest evidence of effectiveness.

The PREP Act aims to strengthen teacher and leader preparation programs while placing an emphasis on addressing teacher and principal shortages. The bill establishes partnership grants for Grow Your Own Programs to address teacher or leader shortages in specific subject areas, or to increase the diversity of the educator workforce, by recruiting and training paraprofessionals or other members of the community to work in schools in that same community. The PREP Act would prioritize eligible partnerships that address rural teacher and leader shortages, increase the diversity of the leader workforce, and programs that offer clinical or residency experience. The Act also allows the Secretary of Education to set aside 10 percent of appropriated TQP funds for an allocation to states for activities to support the work of increasing teacher and school leader diversity, identifying and addressing teacher and school leader shortages, and improving preparation programs.

Accountability for Programs that Prepare Teachers

All three of the recent proposals expand preparation program quality report cards to include school leader preparation programs, in addition to teacher preparation programs.

The Aim Higher Act strengthens the requirements and capacity for oversight and intervention for at-risk and low-performing teacher and school leader preparation programs. States would have to include more robust indicators in the educator preparation quality report cards it submits to the U.S. Department of Education. Such indicators include programs’ admission rates, median and range of GPA for admitted students, and the total number and percentage of school leader preparation program completers placed as principals who are rated as effective or above with a state’s school leader evaluation and support system—or other comparable indicators of performance—after three years of leading a school. The bill also requires states to report to the Secretary of Education the percentage of program graduates that are teaching in high-need schools, and the connection between the subject area and grade span of program graduates by the teacher preparation program to the identified teacher workforce needs of the state. States are currently required to assess and identify low-performing programs in the state, but under this proposal, the levels of performance and criteria for meeting those levels would now be determined in consultation with a variety of stakeholders. States would also be required to establish a period of improvement and redesign for at-risk programs and to provide those programs with technical assistance for no longer than three years. If at-risk programs do not improve after being assisted by the state in that period of time, programs would then be identified as low performing and would lose eligibility for federal funding.

The LEADER Act would also expand oversight to other entities that provide teacher or school leader preparation, not just IHEs, within the state that conduct an alternative route to a state teacher or school leader certification program and receives funds under Title II. These entities would now be required to provide annual reports to the state, as other preparation providers already do. All entities would need to provide new program information and outcomes such as number and percentage of program completers who are hired as teachers and leaders within three years and the total number and percentage of program completers placed as principals who are rated effective or above on school leader evaluation and support systems after three years of leading a school, which states would then incorporate in their report cards to the Secretary of Education. States would also be required to include in their report card a description of the extent to which teacher and school leader preparation programs are addressing shortages. States are currently required to conduct an assessment to identify low-performing programs, but the LEADER Act adds new requirements for how states should identify low-performing programs, including using multiple indicators which may include placement, retention, and effectiveness for school leaders, and student academic outcomes for both teachers and leaders.

The PREP Act makes some tweaks to the accountability section for teacher preparation programs by requiring programs to report on the 3- and 5-year teacher or school leader retention rates disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and gender. States also would need to report on state-identified areas of teacher or school leader shortages, including a description of the extent to which teacher or school leader preparation programs are addressing those shortages, as well as the lack of student access to experienced, fully certified, and effective teachers and school leaders.

Implications for Future Educators

Given the critical role that teachers and leaders play in impacting the success of students and schools, any HEA reauthorization should strengthen programs that enhance educator quality by 1) reauthorizing and improving the Teacher Quality Partnership (TQP) Grant program; 2) improving data collection and reporting requirements related to teacher preparation programs; and 3) enhancing educator preparation for teachers in high-need areas, such as special education and instruction for English learners. While each of the three recently released proposals make thoughtful improvements to the TQP grants that would strengthen teacher and school leader pipelines, with a focus on high-need areas, there is still room for further improvement in the area of educator preparation program accountability.

Currently, data collected on educator preparation programs are focused on inputs to teachers’ preparation that provide little insight into which aspects of teacher candidates and their preparation programs are most related to strong in-service performance. These bills make an effort to move toward asking states and educator preparation programs to collect and report more meaningful outcome data such as job placement, retention rates, and employer feedback. But they stop short when it comes to tracking graduates’ performance in the classroom—although the LEADER Act moves in this direction by including these metrics for school leaders, it does not do so for teachers.

Finding common ground on these proposals—much less having them go further on accountability—will not be easy. The Obama Administration put in place regulationsthat would change how states and institutions of higher education report on the quality of programs that prepare teachers, as well as what accountability measures are tied to that reporting—replacing the majority of inputs-based measures with measures focused on program graduates’ outcomes. But these regulations were controversial, and soon after taking office, President Trump signed a bill that repealed them. But while the debate over which measures to use to assess preparation programs has been fraught with contention, Congress would be remiss if they do not use HEA reauthorization as an opportunity to help make the educator preparation accountability provisions of Title II more meaningful to programs, aspiring educators, and the LEAs that hire them.

While states should retain some autonomy in determining how to rate preparation program quality within their context, they would benefit from federal guidance on which measures will best assess preparation program performance and inform improvement. Congress should ensure a reauthorized HEA provides guardrails to ensure that states follow through with helping low-performing programs improve and with promoting best practices from high-performing ones.