Katie Nettles watches Tonja Whitenack as she participates in a Project Based Learning workshop for teachers and administrators at Leon Sheffield Elementary School in Decatur, Ala. Photo: AP Photo/Decatur Daily, Gary Cosby Jr.

You may have noticed The Hechinger Report’s recent return to one of our favorite topics: teacher preparation. In September, we launched a new reporting project to examine an issue that is critical in the discussion about how to improve American schools, but which often gets short shrift in policy discussions and the media.

It’s a particularly crucial moment to examine how to better prepare the U.S. teaching force. The U.S. Department of Education proposed new rules for teacher preparation programs last year which are due to be finalized by the end of the year. The regulations would require programs to gather more data about their graduates and how those new teachers fare in the classroom. There are few ways to know if schools of education are producing strong teachers, but the pressure to improve has forced many schools of education to rethink their curriculum and approach to training.

Alternative programs are proliferating, even as evidence is lacking or mixed on the effectiveness and long-term feasibility of these programs. At the same time, many states are threatened with major shortages especially in crucial areas like math, science and special education. And the ongoing debate over how to close the country’s stubborn racial achievement gap has elevated a persistent problem: an overwhelmingly white teaching force at a time when the student population has become “majority minority.”

Related: Teacher prep fails to prepare educators for diversity, child trauma, panel says

Our project will examine the major questions in the field: What are the most important qualities of effective teachers and how might teacher training programs foster these? What elements matter most in a high-quality program, and are they present at the institutions producing the bulk of our teachers?  How should institutions be held accountable for improving the quality of their graduates, and how are various accountability systems or rankings forcing change for the better (or worse)? Where are the bright spots in teacher preparation, and how might lessons learned from the example be spread? How do teachers feel about the level of preparation they’re given in different programs, and what can institutions learn from their experiences once they take over their own classrooms?

Related: Five ideas to improve teacher quality

We believe that the people practicing in schools of education – the presidents, deans and professors – along with leaders and educators in alternative teacher preparation programs, must have access to information about changes in the field and be engaged in the discussion about reforms, innovations and research about best practices. We’ll seek to provide that information and a forum for that discussion here, and we welcome suggestions, questions, and your opinions along the way.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about teacher preparation.

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Jackie Mader received a bachelor’s degree from Loyola Marymount University and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a recipient of the 2012 Fred M. Hechinger Journalism Education Award. Prior to attending Columbia, she taught special education in Charlotte, N.C. and trained first-year teachers in the Mississippi Delta.