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.
In other words, the nation needs a New Deal for teachers. Rather than a singular reform, we need a broad array of new initiatives to support four essential goals: higher aggregate quality in the teaching candidate pool, more opportunities for educator-driven innovation and professional growth, better measurement of teacher effectiveness, and new forms of compensation and promotion based on skills and performance. Like other trends in education, human-capital strategies must move from being process- and compliance-oriented, with little attention to performance, to being flexible, customized, and directly tied to results. Such changes would benefit teachers, as they would provide educators with the training, development, compensation, and respect they deserve. But, even more importantly, such a fundamental redesign of our education system would benefit our children. After all, real freedom–the kind that allows young people, regardless of background, to pursue their dreams and fully exercise their rights–is simply impossible without access to an excellent education.
The current human-capital system in American public education revolves around three primary functions: Preparation, training, and evaluation and compensation. In each of these areas, the system is misaligned with the needs of children and disconnected from the goals of equity and effectiveness. The problems are complicated and deeply rooted, and consequently the solutions require much more than additional resources; they require fundamental reform that addresses all three of these areas.
Preparation The vast majority of teachers in this country enter the profession through traditional routes. They participate in either undergraduate or graduate programs in education designed to prepare them for the teaching profession. These programs influence the supply of highly effective teachers in three ways: by setting admissions standards, by imparting skills that help their graduates become effective teachers, and by setting program completion standards. Yet in each of these areas, many schools of education are not serving their students at a level that will lead to the increased student effectiveness we all desire. Of course, there are notable exceptions. But, in general, traditional teacher preparation in America is misaligned with the rigorous demands facing today’s educators.
Take the criteria that education programs use to select their students. If the principal objective of a teacher-preparation program is to develop highly effective educators, then it ought to select its students with attention to the characteristics that correlate with effectiveness in the classroom. One such broadly recognized characteristic is the level of a prospective teacher’s “literacy”–not merely an individual’s ability to read, but rather one’s “world knowledge,” general academic proficiency, and ability to communicate. To be sure, this broadly defined literacy does not, by itself, guarantee effective teaching, but it is, on average, very much related to success in the classroom. Multiple studies examining different proxies for literacy have shown that educators who are considered “highly literate” consistently produce student achievement that outpaces that of their “less literate” peers, sometimes by more than a third of a grade level per year. One study of Philadelphia students suggests that this effect may be greatest for low-income and minority students. Summarizing the evidence, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), of which we are both members, reports that, “clearly a prospective teacher’s level of literacy, however measured, should be a primary consideration in the hiring process.”
Despite this evidence, many schools of education do not select their students with an aggressive eye toward this broadly defined literacy. For example, one study of the graduates of the State University of New York system found that, on standardized aptitude tests, elementary and secondary teachers were more likely to score on the lower end of the distribution than their non-teaching peers, and less likely to score at the higher end. National data reflect the same trends: Fewer than 7 percent of public school teachers, for instance, graduated from “selective” colleges. Of course, test scores and college selectivity are not the only indicators of effective teaching; a range of factors leads to excellence in the classroom. However, research suggests that there is a real connection between effectiveness in the classroom and “literacy” that could be more fully addressed in how current teacher preparation programs select candidates.
While higher selectivity is important, imparting the most salient teaching skills is vital. Yet, in many cases, these skills are not being addressed in as robust a manner as possible. For instance, a recent NCTQ study of elementary education programs found that only 15 percent actually teach the five components of effective reading instruction identified by the National Reading Panel as essential to reading instruction. Another study, by David Steiner, the dean of the School of Education at Hunter College, and Susan Rozen, the director of reading and literacy for the Bedford, Massachusetts, public school system, examined the syllabi from education programs across the country and concluded: “Most schools of education we reviewed risk…not providing their students with a thoughtful and academically rich background in the fundamentals of what it means to be an outstanding educator.”
In addition to what they teach, education schools can also influence teacher effectiveness by using actual performance data about each prospective graduate (gleaned from student practicum experiences) to set exit standards. However, where robust practicum experiences are required, students are infrequently held accountable for their performance. Further complicating matters, there is little appetite among many policymakers to hold teacher-preparation programs themselves accountable for the performance of their graduates. In fact, only a handful of states actually track teacher-performance data with the explicit purpose of gauging the effectiveness of preparation programs.
What about alternative paths to the teaching profession? Do they fare any better than their traditional counterparts? This is a difficult question to answer because such programs vary so widely in design, and many mirror traditional programs in their basic structure and content. In practice, what seems to matter most is not the program’s classification–traditional or alternative–but rather the extent to which it pays attention to the levers of quality: high admissions standards with a focus on literacy levels, rigorous and relevant coursework, and high graduation standards based in large part on student teaching performance.
Programs that do these things typically get results. Take for instance the best known, Teach for America (TFA), which recruits top college students to teach in high-poverty communities for at least two years. It has very high admissions standards (only one in eight applicants to the program was admitted in 2006); requires streamlined, but rigorous, coursework the summer before TFA corps members begin teaching; and provides intensive ongoing support and training. And while many TFA teachers would agree with the program’s critics who say that additional training beyond the summer institute would have been useful, randomized trials indicate that these educators are, on average, as effective, and in some cases more effective, than traditionally prepared teachers. Obviously, scale dictates that TFA and similar programs (such as the non-profit New Teacher Project, which works with urban districts to recruit, train, and place teachers) are not “the answer” to the human capital crisis in education. But by taking teacher selection and recruiting so seriously, these and other initiatives do offer broader lessons for the American public education system.
Induction, Mentoring, and Professional Development After they are hired, teachers typically receive limited ongoing support from their school systems. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which for years has championed better induction and mentoring for teachers, has found that while states frequently have induction and mentoring programs on the books, they often lack funding, rigor, and sustained district support.
Mentoring programs can be an incredibly important support for novice teachers. Such programs, where they exist, however, are frequently ineffective, for two reasons. First, in many school systems, there are simply not enough quality mentors to go around. This is particularly true in high-poverty districts that struggle to retain their highest-performing teachers in the first place. As a result, mentors often have only limited opportunities to connect with the new teachers in their charge. Furthermore, because of the scarcity of quality mentors, it is not uncommon for a school system to pair two educators who teach different subjects and different grade levels. Of course, some elements of pedagogy are universally transferable. But, if two colleagues are to wrestle deeply with their instructional methods, it certainly helps if they teach the same subject and roughly the same grade. Second, many mentoring programs are ineffective because they rarely offer quality training to the mentors themselves. Without formal training, it can be difficult for a teacher–even a highly successful one–to help a colleague effectively reflect upon and improve his or her practice.
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