If you have not paid attention to the proposed “Teacher Prep” regulations, it’s time to do so. Once again “distance education” is being treated differently by the U.S. Department of Education.

Certainly, institutions with distance education programs that prepare students to become certified K-12 teachers should respond. In talks with Deborah Koolbeck (Director, Government Relations) for the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE), she is encouraging all her member colleges to reply, even if they do not have distance education programs. I make a similar recommendation to all colleges offering distance education, whether you have Teacher Prep or not. You should reply.

I’ll tell you why you should comment and I’ll give you some suggestions on how to reply. First some background…

An Extremely Short History of the Teacher Prep Regulations
The Department of Education was not happy with how states were grading colleges and alternative programs that prepared people to be K-12 teachers. One of the criteria for institutional eligibility to award TEACH grants to students is receiving a passing grade from the state. Using the existing measures, States rarely failed an institution and few States were paying any attention to students learning via distance education.Picture of a hand with a watch and a pen. The words "The Time to Comment is Now" appears on a letter presumably being written by the person in the photo.

The “Original NPRM” on Teacher Prep
In December of 2014, the Department of Education released for comment a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) seeking to add more teeth to teacher education oversight. For purposes of this discussion, I’ll call that document the “Original NPRM.” Some highlights of the regulations proposed at that time were:

  • The new unit of measure for institutions would be by “program” and not the institution. For example, a college might have bachelor’s degrees in elementary education, secondary education, and special education that all lead to teacher licensure. Each of those would be considered a “program.”
  • The state would be expected to review distance education programs from other states serving students within the state.
  • The state would be expected to report on each program on four indicators:
    1. Student Learning Outcomes. Measure growth for students in classes taught by new teachers.
    2. Employment Outcomes. Measures of teacher placement rate (with a breakout for those in high-need schools) and teacher retention (with at breakout for those in high-need schools).
    3. Survey Outcomes. Survey new teachers and their employers to see if the program prepared the new teacher to succeed.
    4. Accreditation or Alternative State Approval. Is the program accredited or meets other criteria for alternative programs?
  • Based on those criteria, the state will give each program one of the following four ratings: “low-performing,” “at-risk,” “effective,” or “exceptional.”
  • The methods for measuring each indicator and how those measures map to the ratings are left to each state to devise. Sound familiar? This could be as confusing as state authorization.

Shortly after the Orignial NPRMwas released, I provided a summary of what was being proposed. In partnership with the Online Learning Consortium and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, WCET submitted written comments focused on the distance education shortcomings of what was proposed and provided  some alternative recommendations.

The “Supplemental NPRM” on Teacher Prep and Distance Education
In response to the comments received to the “Original NPRM,” the Department did something it has never done before by creating a “Supplemental NPRM” with new regulations and questions.  Issued on April 1 (yes, I know), the new NPRM focuses on just one issue:  Distance Education.  The deadline for comments is May 2.

Our previous comment had some impact. Be careful what you ask for, you might just get it.

Why Should You Comment?
In my opinion, the Supplemental NPRM falls short in some significant ways:

  • It discriminates against distance education. Even if you don’t have a Teacher Prep program, you should object to another case of distance education being treated differently. I am NOT suggesting that we dodge accountability, it just should be conducted in the proper context. Even if you comment only on this one point, volume counts! Let’s stop this precedence.
  • It imposes an unfair penalty. States may each use their own measures and different cohort methods to assess programs. If a program rates as “low-performing” or “at-risk” in as few as ONE state, it loses the right to offer TEACH grants in ANY state.
  • The estimates of burden on states and institutions are ridiculously low. To comply, it is estimated that states would incur less than $5,000 in additional annual costs and institutions would incur NO (yes, zero) additional costs.

Who Should Reply?
It would be great to have institutions and/or colleges of education reply. You would need to navigate the proper government relations channels at your institution to do so. This may be difficult given the May 2 deadline. This is why I gave you a heads-up in my blog post that came out the same day the Supplemental NPRM was issues.

You may reply as an individual. You can’t use your institution or organization letterhead, but you can give your name, title, and employer. It might be good to reiterate that you are not responding in your official capacity for the institution.

How Do I Reply?
Directions on how to reply appear in the “Addresses” section of the Supplemental NPRM. You may: “Submit your comments through the Federal eRulemaking Portal or via postal mail, commercial delivery, or hand delivery.” If you plan to use the Portal, give yourself some time to figure it out or get help from whomever usually does this on your campus.

What Should I Say?
Deborah Koolbeck from AACTE created a great template for a letter addressed to the Secretary of the Department of Education. You should:

  • Personalize it as form letters get less attention. As Deborah suggests, briefly tell your story.
  • Add your own comments. I’ll give you some observations of my own below. Deborah included AACTE’s observations in her letter. Focus on what would have the greatest impact on you and your students. Say why what is proposed would help or hurt you. Discard the rest.
  • Be respectful. We can be better than the presidential candidates.
  • Make positive or helpful suggestions. Personally, I hate the responses which object to everything without supplying, at least some, helpful alternatives. This helps to address the sense that we are merely objecting to any type of oversight or anything that inconveniences us. I’m for regulations that serve a purpose and for which the cure is not worse than the disease.

Another example is the letter that we submitted for the Original NPRM. As you look at this blog post and the letter, I’m all about bullets, highlighting, and bolding. They help to drive home the main points as some people merely scan the letter. You want to make sure that your main points or perceived as your main points.

What Points Should I Make?
Here are some of my observations about the Supplemental NPRM. There are more ideas than you should put in a letter. Pick those that you like. Put them in your own words. Add your own observations.

Do Not Discriminate By Mode of Instruction
Do not discriminate against distance education or any mode of instruction by creating separate criteria or measures.

There should not be a distinction between distance education, face-to-face instruction, blended learning, or any other mode of learning. The college of education or other entity (e.g., Troops to Teachers, Teach for America, Boettcher Teacher Residency Program or other alternative certification path) is presenting to the State that their graduates are teacher candidates with the requisite skills to be an effective teacher. The State’s interest is not in how that candidate acquired those skills, but if the candidate possesses those skills and is able to apply them effectively in the classroom.

The “Distance Education” Definition Creates More Problems than It Solves
From the Supplemental NPRM, the Department plans to use the “distance education” definition found in Chapter 34, 600.2. That definition focuses on “instruction to students who are separated from the instructor.” The definition has been applied by the Department as meaning for entirely (or nearly entirely) the course of instruction is taught at a distance. This creates a large loophole for students enrolled in programs that are neither fully “distance” nor fully “brick and mortar.” They would not be covered by the requirements of the Supplemental NPRM, as written. Examples include:

  • “Blended” teacher prep programs with part of the instruction at a “distance” and part of the instruction is back at the home campus.
  • “Blended” teacher prep programs with part of the instruction at a “distance” and part of the instruction is at alternative sites, such as local K-12 schools or rented locations.
  • Competency-based education teacher prep programs that use a variety of online and face-to-face activities and courses for students to obtain their skills.

If the Department requests that States begin to develop different measures for how a teacher candidate obtains teaching skills, then those alternative measures should not be limited to “distance education.”  It would logically follow that alternative measures be developed for other alternative certification pathways, such as Troops for Teachers or Teach for America.

The need for multiple measures can be simplified by treating all teacher education candidates the same regardless of how they obtained their skills. This would avoid the confusion of creating additional measures for distance education or other modes that are difficult to distinguish from each other.

Support for removing the distinction among modes of instruction can be found in the actions of some accrediting agencies. The Higher Learning Commission and AACSB (accrediting agency for business schools) have removed distinctions for distance education. Those agencies expect institutions to provide the same level of academic and student support quality regardless of mode of instruction. Likewise, States should hold all teacher candidates to the same standard.

The Proposed Change to Certification Should be Expanded
The question vexing the Department is one of geography, not mode of instruction. The Original NPRM was clearly written with the traditional model of instruction in mind. Students who moved out-of-state were lost to goals of “reporting and determining the teacher preparation program’s level of overall performance.” The Supplemental NPRM solved the problem by asking the State to review all distance education teaching candidates in the state in which they are certified. The focus on place of certification is a much-needed improvement provided by the Supplemental NPRM. States reporting on newly-certified teachers within their borders are reinforced in their right to review these teachers regardless of mode of instruction used to prepare them.

Allowing a Single State “Veto” for TEACH Grants is Unfair.
The current proposal in the Supplemental NPRM is that if a teacher preparation program is found to be “low-performing” or “at-risk” in a single State for two years or by two different states over a two-year period, then “no student in any State enrolled in that distance education program would be able to receive a Teach Grant” in the subsequent year.

As envisioned, penalizing students in all states for a failure in one state is grossly unfair. Here are the reasons why:

  • Under the Supplemental NPRM, every State is allowed to create its own measures to determine if a program is “low-performing” or “at-risk.” The Department acknowledges the right of every State to set its own standards. The proposal would allow a review outcome in one state to overrule the TEACH eligibility in all other states. Given the vast differences across the country in populations and geography, criteria that are appropriate in one State might not make sense in other States. Therefore, a criterion that has no impact in one State may inadvertently be applied in that State.
  • Given WCET’s extensive experience with State authorization there are (unfortunately) a few States that value protectionism over quality. This Supplemental NPRM would give those states power beyond their own borders. This would embolden them to remain protectionist. If the goal is to assess the quality of teacher prep programs, then all programs should use the same measures.
  • Distance education programs might have few students in a State and might become victims of an unusually unrepresentative sample in a particular
  • The Original NPRM allows for options in aggregation methods if there are fewer than 25 students in a program in a State. This could lead to variations in how the measures are applied. For example, using a multi-year sample in a state could result in an unusually low-performing class of teachers negatively affecting a program.’ Beyond these suggested aggregation methods, there is also a hint that state could use as few students as they wish in a cohort as long as they are not individually identifiable. Decisions could be made on a low sample. Distance programs would probably have very low participation in most states.

Differing Measures will Confuse, Not Inform, the Consumer
The following statement appeared in our letter responding to the Original NPRM regarding consumers. In this context, we define “consumers” as students shopping for Teacher Prep programs or policymakers assessing such programs:

Confusion for the consumer. It appears that the Department plans to post the results on its website using the specified grading categories for each program. It is likely that the consumer will assume that the measures used in each State will be comparable when they will likely vary greatly.

Presumably, a program’s scores would be published for each state in which it had students certified. Wildly varying scores will be confusing and an aggregate score is not possible since different methods of scoring were used by each State.

Since that letter was submitted the Department released the “College Scorecard” to inform students about colleges. The Scorecard’s use of “graduation rate” measures penalizes colleges that serve few first-time, full-time students. It also publishes “average annual cost” data that based on net cost after financial aid is applied and counts only students receiving aid. These measures confuse students and underlines how even standardized data can be deceptive if used improperly. If one of the purposes of these regulations is to better inform consumers and leaders about the quality of these programs, then comparable measures are needed across states without differentiation by mode of instruction.

Addressing Inconsistencies Among States
As for inconsistencies in measures for modes of instruction, States should use the same standards for all modes of instruction.

As for inconsistencies in measures among States, we repeat a recommendation from our letter responding to the Original NPRM. The Department has powers of persuasion beyond regulations. A joint solution would have greater buy-in and power:

Encourage and Incentivize States to Work Cooperatively on Measures. Given the burden of implementing this regulation, the States would very much benefit from working in collaboration to develop the measures. The processes would not be mandated on the States, but those choosing to participate could develop a more robust and defensible system in a fraction of the time that it would take to do it alone. If federal funds are not available, there may be grant support to assure that quality measures are developed. The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) is an excellent example of states working collaboratively to resolve issues of quality assurance, consumer protection, and oversight of colleges.

The Cost Estimate for Institutions is Not Supportable
In the first paragraph of “Number of Distance Education Programs” section of the Supplemental NPRM reads: “it is clear that at least some States have been reporting on distance education programs…” Focusing on the “at least some” statement, that means that not all were reporting on distance education programs. In fact in our letter responding to the Original NPRM we noted that we had great difficulty finding ANY state reporting on a distance education program.

The Supplemental NPRM later states that: “The cost estimate claims that there is no increased burden on institutions because they are already reporting.” This is logically inconsistent. The same document claims that only “some” states were reporting on these programs and then claims all institutions are already reporting. This is especially true when the entire purpose of the Supplemental NPRM is to propose a whole new structure for reviewing programs with additional indicators.

The Department might argue that it is the State’s responsibility to gather data from these measures. This is an unfunded mandate on the states. The Supplemental NPRM estimates that it will probably cost states on average less than $5,000 each per year to implement the new distance education requirements. It is easy to imagine that States will require institutions to collect the data and report it, thus transferring even more costs to the institution. This is especially true for out-of-state institutions as there is no real benefit to the State to assist those programs.

Is this Regulation Meeting Its Stated Purpose?
Is there a better way that you can recommend to meet the Department’s goal of identifying low-performing producers of K-12 teachers?

“Raise the Barn”
WCET is a cooperative. In the most traditional, historical sense, cooperative organizations band together to make what needs to happen, happen.  When a community member needs a barn, a barn is raised.  Right now, the distance education community needs you to help raise the barn to have our collective voice heard by the Department.  All of our voices are stronger than one of our voices.


Russell Poulin
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies
Twitter:  RussPoulin

5 replies on “Call to Action: EVERYONE Should Respond to Teacher Prep Distance Ed Regs”

A few people have asked me if these regulations apply only to pre-certification programs or does it also include master’s programs or other certificates that a teacher could complete to advance her or his career. The regulations are aimed at pre-certification.

However, there could be a time when a person takes a master’s or certificate program in a completely of slightly different field. If that person moves to a new state and gets certified in that new area, that state MIGHT consider your program to be the pre-certification program since the teacher is new to them. That’s a rare example, but it might happen.

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