America’s Teaching Crisis
Our public schools are failing. To save them, we need to look to the
head of the class.
For too many students, American public education is failing. Class and race still play a significant and disturbing role in determining access to educational opportunity, and as a result large and unjust gaps in achievement and outcomes still divide American children. The 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress indicates that, by the time they are in the fourth grade, low-income children are roughly two-and-a-half times less likely to be meeting grade-level proficiency standards as compared to their more affluent peers. And studies from Education Week, the Harvard Civil Rights Project, and the Manhattan Institute all indicate that barely more than half of African-American and Hispanic students finish high school on time, while more than three-quarters of white students do. These disparities exist not because some children are inherently less capable than others, but because we have failed to create an educational system that provides even an approximation of equal opportunity to all children, regardless of background. These opportunity-crushing gaps tear at the fabric of America’s social compact, especially as jobs requiring a strong mind rather than a strong back increasingly become the avenue for individual opportunity and national competitiveness.
There is no shortage of education-reform movements and proposals, some of them promising. Both Republicans and Democrats have embraced “standards-based reform,” as embodied in President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Improving America’s Schools Act and President George W. Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. And there is an emerging consensus about the value of expanding choice in public education. But just beneath the surface of this promising consensus, complicated questions abound. And none is as politically and substantively complicated as the question of human capital. In the effort to significantly boost our students’ achievement, how does the public education system in this nation select, prepare, support, and compensate its most important resource: teachers? People matter most in this incredibly complicated and challenging intellectual work, and the best curricula, assessments, and intervention programs will all fall short without highly capable and effective teachers, principals, and specialists. In fact, research shows that teacher effectiveness is the most powerful in-school factor affecting student learning. Having highly effective teachers for multiple years can help low-performing students overcome any achievement gaps they face, while multiple years of ineffective teachers can lead to devastating deficits. A more strategic approach to human capital is absolutely critical.
Yet despite the centrality of people to education, current strategies for teacher recruitment, training, evaluation, and compensation are largely divorced from the goals of effectiveness and equity and are misaligned with what we know works. While politicians repeatedly profess their respect for teachers, our public policies fundamentally disrespect them and the work they do. No enterprise, public or private, can thrive over time without paying close attention to how it recruits, trains, and retains its very best people. Considering that the majority of the $500 billion spent annually on American public education goes directly to supporting personnel, it is unacceptable that we have a system that does not manage human capital more effectively.
This inattention to human capital is in part the natural byproduct of a historically favorable labor market for schools. For much of the twentieth century, discrimination prevented many highly educated women and minorities from entering most professions. The field of education, however, was open to them. As a result, schools enjoyed a relatively captive labor market, keeping aggregate quality higher than it otherwise would have been. Thankfully, these barriers in the labor market are now mostly gone. But, as a consequence, public schools must now compete for high-quality talent on the same terms as every other profession. At the same time, lucrative, private-sector opportunities for college-educated Americans continue to proliferate. Despite these changes in the labor market, teachers are still recruited, trained, credentialed, and paid much as they were a generation ago.
What does the resulting system look like? Not surprisingly, it suffers from what labor economists would characterize as an adverse-selection problem. Individuals with excellent academic credentials are disproportionately drawn away from teaching in the first place. And top-performers that join the profession are more likely than others to leave within the first few years on the job.
At the same time, quality teachers are not equally distributed across school districts. For example, according to the Education Trust, low-income and minority students are much less likely than other students to have teachers with a college major in the subject they are teaching. And while certain subjects enjoy an abundance of candidates, others–like math, science, and special education–suffer from chronic and acute shortages.
Finally, while roughly three-quarters of our total education dollars are devoted to human capital, these resources are often misaligned from the goal of improving student learning. According to University of Washington school-finance expert Marguerite Roza, almost 20 percent of annual public-school funding is tied to programs and policies that are neither grounded in research nor aligned with the goals of improving student learning. It is estimated that these inefficiencies add up to $77 billion, money that could be used to pay teachers more and train and support them more effectively.
A few years ago, University of Washington researcher Paul Hill dubbed the lack of attention to many of these issues a “conspiracy of silence.” And while the focus on human capital has increased modestly in recent years (we now see limited challenges to the uniform salary schedule as well as a handful of truly alternative teacher preparation routes) the “conspiracy” continues. What has not occurred is what the entire education system desperately needs: a top-to-bottom overhaul of how this nation recruits, trains, evaluates, and compensates the men and women who teach our nation’s children.
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