US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions

Statement of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) At the HELP Committee Hearing: “Teacher Preparation: Ensuring a Quality Teacher in Every Classroom”

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

“This is the seventh in a series of hearings to inform this committee’s reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The focus of today’s hearing, teacher preparation, is profoundly important for all students, from the very youngest to our adult students.

“Study after study shows that teacher quality is the decisive in-school factor in boosting student achievement.  Today, we have too few students who have access to highly effective teachers – teachers who can help ensure that our low-income students get the high quality education they deserve.  Just last week, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released data showing that students of color are much more likely to attend schools where teachers have not met all state licensing requirements.  In order to achieve greater equity in our schools, we must ensure that every student has access to highly effective teachers.      

“The Higher Education Act plays a critical role in teacher training by providing funding to institutions of higher education, in partnership with K-12 districts, to reform and strengthen their teacher preparation programs.  This is a relatively small federal program.  We will hear, today, how it can be best leveraged to bring about systemic change in our teacher preparation programs. 

“HEA requires all institutions of higher education as well as states to report certain information about their teacher preparation programs.  I hope we can hear about how the existing reporting requirements can be streamlined and revised to be less burdensome, more focused on outcomes, and more helpful to teacher preparation programs.

“Another area of concern is the lack of communication in many places between institutions of higher education and the K-12 school districts they serve.  This can lead to a variety of problems.  Institutions of higher education do not necessarily understand the realities teachers will face in the classroom, and K-12 districts may not be effectively communicating their needs to the institutions that train their teachers. 

“In certain areas of the country, we also hear about institutions of higher education preparing too many elementary teachers to the exclusion of teachers in shortage areas, including special education teachers, English-language-learner teachers, early childhood specialists, and STEM teachers. 

“In Part D of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal government dedicates funds for the preparation of special education teachers, early interventionists, related services personnel and leaders in the field.  We should continue to ensure both that these funds are available and that they are resulting in effective special education teachers, leaders, and especially early childhood teachers. 

“I understand that many teacher candidates feel a calling to be an elementary school teacher, despite the difficult job prospects in parts of our country.  But many other teaching candidates want to know about their job prospects before entering certain programs, and we owe it to those candidates to have this information more easily accessible.  At a time when so many prospective teachers are graduating with massive amounts of student loan debt, we need to do all we can to ensure they can find a job when they graduate.  

“Finally, HEA requires states to designate teacher preparation programs as low-performing, when appropriate, and to provide certain interventions for those programs.  Yet we know that too few states are actually doing this.  As of 2013, 24 states as well as the District of Columbia have never identified even a single low-performing program.

“One might be inclined to read these statistics and think that our teacher preparation programs are doing a great job.  Unfortunately, in many cases, teachers report feeling unprepared for the realities of the classroom, and school principals and administrators report that many new teachers are not ready to teach.  Now is the time to take stock of where our teacher preparation programs are doing a good job, where they are coming up short, and how we can support efforts to strengthen these programs.

“Ensuring the high quality of America’s teacher preparation programs is one of the greatest challenges in education today.  Our classrooms are filled with dedicated teachers.  As our teachers work to improve the rigor of the instruction they provide to their students, we need to ensure these teachers are adequately prepared to help their students succeed.”      

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