Ideology Not Evidence: What is (Not) Known about Independent Teacher Preparation Programs

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Key New NEPC Brief Takeaway: The expansion of independent teacher education programs is not grounded in research evidence, raising equity concerns about how teachers are prepared to teach “other people’s children.”

Advocacy groups and self-proclaimed social entrepreneurs are working aggressively to deregulate the preparation of teachers and to expand independent, alternative routes into teaching. The policy push is so powerful that it raises a real possibility that the nation may dismantle its university system of teacher education and replace much of it with independent, private programs not connected to colleges or universities.

These new routes sometimes emphasize technical skills over deep, professional understanding. Accordingly, some of the new programs are very different from most teacher education programs provided by U.S. colleges and universities, which are usually grounded in core research knowledge—about the subject matter being taught as well as child and adolescent development and learning theory, all taught in the context of practice and of the students’ environment.

In a brief released today, Independent Teacher Education Programs: Apocryphal Claims, Illusory Evidence, Ken Zeichner of the University of Washington reviews what is known about the quality of five of the most prominent independent teacher education programs in the U.S., including their impact on teacher quality and student learning. Zeichner is the Boeing Professor of Teacher Education at UW and is a member of the prestigious National Academy of Education.

The five independent programs examined in Zeichner’s brief are: The Relay Graduate School of Education (Relay), Match Teacher Residency (MTR), High Tech High’s Internship, iTeach, and TEACH-NOW. His analysis demonstrates that claims regarding the success of such programs are not substantiated by peer-reviewed research and program evaluations.

“The promotion and expansion of independent teacher preparation programs rests not on evidence, but largely on ideology,” says Professor Zeichner. “The lack of credible evidence supporting claims of success is particularly problematic given the current emphasis on evidence-based policy and practice in federal policy and professional standards.”

Zeichner’s analysis also concludes that two of the programs, MTR and Relay, prepare teachers to use highly controlling pedagogical and classroom management techniques that are primarily used in schools serving students of color whose communities are severely impacted by poverty. In doing so, they contribute to the inequitable distribution of professionally prepared teachers and to the stratification of schools according to the social class and racial composition of the student body.

“The teaching and management practices learned by the teachers in these two independent programs are based on a restricted definition of teaching and learning and would not be acceptable in more economically advantaged communities,” explains Zeichner. “Students in more economically advantaged areas have greater access to professionally trained teachers, less punitive and controlling management practices and broader and richer curricula and teaching practices.”

At a time when we are working to educate an increasingly diverse student body, this shift away from preparing teachers with deep professional knowledge may negatively impact teacher quality and student learning. Professor Zeichner offers four specific recommendations based on these findings:

  • State and federal policymakers should not implement policies and provide funding streams that promote the development and expansion of independent teacher education programs unless and until substantive credible evidence accrues to support them. There currently is minimal evidence.
  • State policymakers should be very cautious in authorizing “teacher preparation academies” under a provision in the new federal education law (Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA). Such authorization would exempt those programs from the higher standards for teacher preparation that states typically seek to enforce for other teacher education programs. Policies should hold all teacher preparation programs to clear, consistent, and high standards.
  • Teacher education program quality should be determined by an analysis of the costs and benefits of multiple outcomes associated with the programs. Policymakers should thus reject the argument made by two of these five programs (MTR and Relay) that the sole or overriding indicator of teacher and program quality should be students’ standardized test scores.
  • State and federal policies that are designed to support the development of independent teacher education programs should include monitoring provisions to ensure that they do not contribute to a stratified system, where teachers serving more economically advantaged communities complete programs in colleges and universities to become professional educators, while teachers serving low-income communities receive only more technical, narrow training on how to implement a defined set of curricular, instructional and managerial guidelines.

Find Independent Teacher Education Programs: Apocryphal Claims, Illusory Evidence, by Ken Zeichner, on the web at:

This policy brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at:

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William J. Mathis

Ken Zeichner
University of Washington
(608) 212-0693
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