Teacher Education Preparation: How National Accreditation Standards Influence Teaching

September 26, 2022

By Laurie Todd-Smith, Ph.D. and Alexandra Caro Campana


  • There is a need to reform teacher preparation programs and the accreditation process that governs them. States should review accreditation standards and policies that govern teacher preparation to ensure they are free of bias and aligned with the state’s vision for education. In 2019, student scores in 4th-grade and 8th-grade reading and math were either flat or declined, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. It is critical to consider all components that provide education for students in public and private school systems, including teacher preparation programs.
  • There are extremely limited options for teacher preparation programs. There are primarily two accrediting institutions for teacher preparation programs in the United States, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation and the smaller Association for Advancing Quality in Educator Preparation.
  • For teacher preparation programs, accreditation is non-negotiable—it is required. For the university to receive federal funding, accreditation is needed.
  • The cumbersome and expensive process of engaging in a 3-year bureaucratic system to satisfy the demands of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation results in states conforming to what they define as “quality education.” Education programs seeking accreditation must rewrite their institutions’ curriculum and methodology and develop assessments using the Council’s education terminology. Through this process, educators begin to adopt a similar philosophy to gain accreditation status, which in turn influences how teachers think about education, teaching, and practices and how they teach students. The bottom line is that accreditation shapes educational practices.

Our Nation’s teachers have the unique privilege and responsibility to form the hearts and minds of future generations. How exactly do they obtain that privilege, and who gets to decide whether they are qualified for the task?

The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light the value of face-to-face instruction as well as the need for increased transparency and accountability. It also increased awareness that serious reforms are needed in the public education system (An, Mongillo, Sung, & Fuentes, 2022). After years of applying an antiquated one-size-fits-all public education system, a consensus now exists among parents and many policymakers that meaningful education reforms must be made to K-12 education to improve the outcomes of students. Moreover, parents and policymakers are now, more than ever, interested in increased visibility into what is being taught in our classrooms.

National Accreditation Standards directly affect what is being taught in teacher education preparation programs across the Nation. States should review the standards and policies that govern teacher preparation programs and ensure that future teachers are receiving training to help them be effective classroom practitioners.

As we emerge from the pandemic, teacher quality has never been more critical—or more challenged. Teacher quality is considered one of the most important in-school factors that contribute to a child’s academic success. A supply of well-trained teachers is essential for public, private, and charter schools. The COVID-19 pandemic also heightened tensions surrounding the teaching of social issues, with national attention now focused on curriculum, school boards, and education policy. It is essential to consider all components that make up a quality education for a student, including the foundational effect accreditation plays in teacher preparation.

Teacher Preparation Programs in the United States

Today, approximately 3.2 million teachers in the United States teach 49.4 million students in public elementary and secondary schools (NCES, 2021). Approximately 4.7 million students attend private schools taught by half a million teachers (NCES, 2021). A teacher preparation program is defined as a program within a university or college setting that leads to a specific state teaching credential in a specific field. Prospective teachers may enroll in one of three types of teacher preparation programs: traditional, alternative based at an institution of higher education (alternative IHE), or alternative not based at an institution of higher education (alternative non-IHE). Generally, traditional teacher preparation programs are based at institutions of higher education and lead to a bachelor’s or master’s degree (National Research Council, 2010). However, traditional programs can be housed outside of institutions of higher education, and institutions of higher education can also house alternative programs (Dibner, 2020). Compared with alternative programs, traditional programs typically require more coursework in teaching methods and are more likely to require student-teaching placements (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017).

The percentage of teacher preparation students enrolled in alternative non-IHE programs varies widely among states (Figure 1). In 2018–19, for example, 21 states and jurisdictions had no students in alternative non-IHE programs, whereas, in Texas, more than half of teacher preparation students were enrolled in these programs.

Figure 1:  Percent of Teacher Preparation Program Students enrolled in Alternative Non-IHE Programs by State 2018-2109

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Education is regulated at the state level, but national program accreditation guidelines drive the coursework and design for teacher education programs. The overarching goal of program accreditation is for teacher preparation programs to demonstrate, through a variety of measures, that they are producing strong teachers who are well  

equipped to lead their classrooms. For IHE programs, accreditation is not optional—it is required. For the university to be eligible to receive federal funding or financial aid, it must be accredited. Federal and state governments rely on such accreditation agencies to guarantee the quality of educational institutions since the government provides federal funds for student aid (Eaton, 2006). States use a variety of measures to assess the performance of teacher preparation programs. From 2018 to 2019, the largest number of states (45) used accreditation or a state review rating to measure

program performance, and the second largest number of states (30) used pass rates on the state assessments required for a teaching credential (U.S. Department of Education, 2018). Fewer than 10 states used improvements in K–12 student academic achievement or professional development opportunities for current teachers to measure teacher preparation program performance.

Title II of the Higher Education Act requires the Department of Education to collect and publish data each academic year disclosing the number of teacher preparation providers in states. In the most recent data available, the 2018-2019 academic year, it was reported that there were 2,172 teacher preparation programs, most of which hosted traditional programs. There were 719 alternate teacher preparation providers in the United States. Of those alternative programs, 495 were at institutions of higher education, and 224 were non-university affiliated programs (U.S. Department of Education, 2022).

Figure 2Title II, Higher Education Act 2018-2019 academic year, number of teacher preparation providers by type of program.

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Alternative pathways vary by state, but in general, they do not require going through a professional teacher education preparation program. The alternative route helps those who are changing career paths and those who have pursued options like Teach for America. This pathway is growing. Alternative certification programs are typically provided for people who already have a bachelor’s degree. This alternative certification route allows them to become certified as teachers without having to get another degree. In 2002, Texas became the first state to authorize for-profit providers in non-university settings that offer alternative teacher preparation programs (Baumhardt, 2021). One-third of teachers in Texas public schools from 2020-2021 came from an alternative certification program. Teachers of Tomorrow, which started in Texas, is the largest educator preparation program in the state. 

It is important to recognize that there are for-profit postsecondary institutions that grant degrees and certificates. There are some for-profit postsecondary institutions that grant both degrees and certificates, which are required to obtain accreditation in order to participate in federal student financial aid programs. There are other for-profit institutions that grant teacher certification but do not grant degrees and cannot participate in federal financial aid programs. Individual states make the decisions about whether or authorize these programs (Jang & Horn, 2017). 

Figure 3 below provides an overview of how the process works to become a teacher in the United States. Every state is different, but all require prospective teachers to

attend an approved program in required order to become certified.

Figure 3Process for Teacher Certification

teacher certification

Accreditation Agencies

The first accreditation agency for higher education was formed in 1857 as a way for colleges and universities to identify and distinguish themselves for the purposes of student credit transfer and degree recognition. Over time, accreditation became a voluntary process of self-study and external peer review of an institution or program’s education quality using a set of agreed-upon standards. In 1952, Cloyd Marvin, the longest-serving president of George Washington University, published an article in the Phi Delta Kappan titled The Problems of Accreditation. He stated:

We believe that our institutions cannot function as trusted, free institutions of higher learning unless they are kept free from the interference of outside organizations that try to tell us what we must teach and how we must conduct our institutions. Accreditation associations have proliferated to the point where they now threaten freedom of faculty action, displace channels of administrative authority, and serve to effect disloyalty to the college or university in the name of a more significant—usually alleged professional connection—loyalty.

His discontent with accreditation systems is further explained by the notion that using common standards in higher education institutions is the same as “a straight-jacket” promoting uniformity. His insight continued when he shared the excessive financial burden it takes to maintain the accreditation process. These concerns from 1952 are also expressed today by many contemporary scholars. Research shows that the administrative duties required for accreditation take time away from scholarship and teaching. In addition, accreditation is a costly process, and it is reported that U.S. institutions spend $3 billion annually on regional accreditation (Whellan & Elgart, 2015). To put that into perspective, the average tuition for a 4-year university in the United States is $141,324, meaning one could fully pay for more than 21,200 student degrees with the money spent on accreditation.

Accreditation Process

Accreditation is a system of external quality review, ensuring that higher education institutions satisfy specific standards (Eaton, 2006). The U.S. has two types of accreditations:  institutional and program accreditation. There are many accrediting agencies for colleges and universities, such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, among others (Colleges and Degrees, n.d.). Program accreditation is a specialized type of accreditation that grants accreditation to university programs (Sywelem & Witte, 2009). For example, program accreditation applies to professional programs such as teacher education, engineering, and business. Program accreditation evaluates the program’s effectiveness in preparing students to meet specific professional standards and assesses teaching, funding, learning facilities, and faculty qualifications, among other aspects of the institution’s unit (Colleges & Degrees, n.d; Mutereko, 2018). For teacher education, accreditation agencies are non-governmental, voluntary, and non-profit organizations widely accepted as adequate quality assurance (Eaton, 2012; Harvey & Stensaker, 2008; Hawkins, 2010). So, most universities will be recognized by institutional and various program accrediting agencies depending on the professional programs offered at the institution. According to the most recent data, there are 779 SACSCOC accredited institutions, with 473 being public colleges, 297 being private non-profit institutions, and 14 being for-profit private colleges (SACSOC, 2022).   

In 2013, after the two existing accrediting entities merged. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) became the sole accrediting institution for U.S. teacher preparation programs. In 2019, the smaller Association for Advancing Quality in Educator Preparation (AAQEP) also began offering accreditation for Colleges of Education (AAQEP, 2021). CAEP overwhelmingly dominates teacher preparation program accreditation, although AAQEP has begun disrupting the market. As of July 2022, AAQEP has accredited 70 teacher-preparation providers (AAQEP, 2022), while CAEP has accredited 471 providers (CAEP, 2022).

The CAEP and the AAQEP provide standards and competency-based assessments for teacher education providers and promote themselves as confidence-builders and reliable authorities on the quality of colleges of education. The CAEP, for instance, seeks “excellence in educator preparation accreditation” (CAEP, n.d.) with a mission to “advance equity and excellence…through evidence-based accreditation that assures quality and supports continuous improvement to strengthen P–12 student learning” (CAEP, n.d.). The CAEP also contends that “states partnering with CAEP establish and enhance the public’s confidence that future teachers and educational leaders from teacher preparation programs meet challenging standards and are prepared to lead K–12 schools and classrooms successfully” (CAEP, 2017). Five standards guide the CAEP’s accreditation process (see Table 1). These standards define and assess the quality of an organization’s performance and serve as the foundation for accreditation reviews and decisions (CAEP, 2015). There are 22 sub-standards. 

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The AAQEP claims that its “standards-based accreditation represents both a public evaluation of the programmatic quality and a professional commitment to ongoing improvement and innovation” (AAQEP, 2020). The AAQEP centers on quality assurance, formative peer reviews, continuous improvement, and innovation of teacher education programs to accomplish its vision. The AAQEP “designs and implements accreditation processes, in cooperation with states and institutions, that respect the diversity and autonomy of institutions and providers” (AAQEP, 2020). The AAQEP considers accreditation as “a profession’s conversation with internal and external stakeholders about quality—how it is defined, how it can be measured, how it can be increased, and how it can be redefined through innovation” (AAQEP, 2020). The AAQEP uses four standards to guide program review (see Table 2). These standards include 24 sub-standards designed to provide the expectations for program quality and set an agenda for improvement and innovation (AAQEP, 2020).