Special Report

Finding and Keeping Competent Teachers

By Lynn Olson — January 13, 2000 23 min read

Rachel had been teaching for seven years in Massachusetts when she decided to move to New York City to be near her family. That’s when the problems began.

Although the 34-year-old educator was fully licensed to teach in Massachusetts, with master’s degrees in both teaching and public policy, she had to sit through 12 hours of testing to earn her professional license in New York state. She also had to submit a videotape of her classroom performance and, to work in the city, complete a course on how to recognize child abuse.

All that to take a $17,000 pay cut--from $58,000 to $41,000--to teach in the New York City schools.

Rachel began applying for her teaching license in October 1998, but by July of last year, she still had not completed the paperwork. And without proof of employment, she couldn’t rent an apartment. “It was just a nightmarish process,” she recalls.

“I know plenty of people go through it,” adds Rachel, who requested that only her middle name be used, since she may still want to teach in the city someday. “But I wasn’t a 25-year-old teacher anymore. I was a person in my mid-30s with a lot of experience. And it really made me angry.”

Across the nation, districts are on the prowl for good teachers. Estimates are that schools will need to hire about 2 million public school teachers in the next decade. But far from enticing people into the profession, states erect hoops and hurdles for prospective candidates that can keep people like Rachel out of the classroom. And those hurdles often do not even achieve their goal of guaranteeing competence.

As the ultimate arbiters of who is permitted to teach, states can help recruit and attract candidates. They can also keep good teachers in the classroom and weed out bad ones by providing support and evaluating performance.

But in each of those roles, states are falling down on the job. When it comes to teaching, many states play an academic shell game.

They raise standards for who can enter the profession on the front end, while keeping the door cracked open on the back end to ensure that every classroom will be staffed come September.

“Every kid, in some sense, will have a teacher,” says Ken I. Wolpin, a professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the National Research Council’s committee on assessment and teacher quality. But not every child will have someone who should be in the classroom.

While Rachel spent the summer filling out forms and taking tests, New York state permitted districts to hire thousands of teachers on temporary, or emergency, licenses, some of whom were much less qualified than she. In 1998-99, the state granted some 10,200 such licenses.

Meanwhile, the incentives most states offer prospective teachers and the support they give those who enter the profession are so weak that the country is losing many of its best candidates.

An analysis of federal survey data for Quality Counts found that about half the undergraduates who prepare for teaching careers have not entered the K-12 public schools four years later. Of those who begin teaching, about one in five leaves after three years in the classroom. And, the analysis shows, top undergraduates, as measured by their scores on college-entrance tests, are less likely to become public school teacher and more likely to quit, if they do.

Teaching Matters

Quality Counts 2000, the fourth annual 50-state report card published by Education Week, focuses on attracting, screening, and keeping talented teachers for the nation’s schools.

About 2.8 million public school teachers are working in the United States. Clearly, every one of them is not going to be a nuclear physicist or come from the uppermost ranges of tested ability. But good teaching matters. And pressure to improve the quality of the teaching force has never been greater.

Today, research is confirming what common sense has suggested all along: A skilled and knowledgeable teacher can make an enormous difference in how well students learn.

One Tennessee study found that students who had good teachers three years in a row scored significantly higher on state tests and made far greater gains in achievement than students with a series of ineffective teachers.

Another study by Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University education professor, found that the strongest predictor of how well a state’s students performed on national assessments was the percentage of well-qualified teachers: educators who were fully certified and had majored in the subjects they taught.

Such findings make sense to the public: Nine of 10 Americans say “ensuring a well-qualified teacher in every classroom” is the second most important step that could be taken to lift student achievement, outranked only by ensuring school safety, according to a 1998 public opinion poll conducted by Recruiting New Teachers, a nonprofit organization in Belmont, Mass.

As states expect more of students--and base promotion and graduation on how well they perform-- policymakers have an obligation to ensure that teachers are up to the task. “We’re raising the stakes for kids,” says Patte Barth, a senior associate at the Washington-based Education Trust, “and we’ve got to make sure that our kids have teachers who can bring them to those high standards.”

Unfortunately, the demand for more and better teachers couldn’t come at a worse time. Enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools is projected to grow by 4 percent between 1997 and 2009, to 48.1 million. And 40 percent of those students will be members of minority groups, compared with only about 12 percent of the current teaching force. More than 20 percent of newly minted teachers leave the profession after four years, creating a constant demand for new hires. And with the average teacher now 44 years old, districts are bracing for a wave of retirements in the coming years.

All this at a time when job opportunities for women and minorities in other professions and fields are greater than ever. Schools are forced to compete for talent in ways they never have in the past, especially in high-demand subjects such as mathematics and science. Although the average salary for a nonteacher with a master’s degree increased by $17,505 from 1994 to 1998, after adjusting for inflation, the average salary for a teacher with a master’s degree inched up by less than $200.

The good news is that interest in teaching is on the rise. More than 10 percent of college freshmen say they want to teach in elementary or secondary schools, the highest percentage since the early 1970s. Applications to many of the nation’s top graduate school of education are climbing. And Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that recruits liberal arts graduates to teach in poor urban and rural schools, says applications have soared 37 percent since the program began 10 years ago.

Viewed in this light, states have a critical choice: They can take steps now to ensure a qualified teaching force for years to come, or they can scramble to fill classrooms with mere warm bodies and be stuck with the results of those lax policies for decades.

Research suggests that, at a minimum, teachers should have a solid general education and know their subjects. If states do nothing else, the experts say, they should guarantee that children have teachers who meet those requirements.

Studies have found that teachers with higher verbal ability, as measured by test scores, produce greater student learning. The evidence also shows that students whose teachers know their subjects perform better than students whose teachers lack subject-matter preparation. There is far less evidence that pedagogy--or knowing how to teach--is important, although part of the problem may be a lack of good measures of pedagogical skill.

Knowing Their Subjects?

To guarantee that teachers have basic cognitive skills, 39 states require prospective educators to pass a basic-skills test. But acing such tests is hardly a feat: In general, critics maintain, they measure verbal and mathematical achievement at about the 10th grade level. And many states set their passing scores so low that virtually anyone can succeed. Even so, 36 states provide loopholes that allow at least some people to enter the classroom even if they fail such exams.

When it comes to guaranteeing teachers’ subject-matter knowledge, states have been most vigilant about high school teachers, generally taking steps along two lines:

  • Thirty-nine require high school teachers to have a major, a minor, or the equivalent number of college credits in the subjects they teach.
  • Twenty-nine require beginning high school teachers to pass tests in their academic disciplines.

Yet all but New Jersey turn around and waive those requirements, either by granting licenses to individual teachers who have not met them or by permitting districts to hire such candidates.

States are far less stringent about whether middle school teachers know their subjects. Only 17 states expect middle school teachers to obtain secondary-level licenses in the academic subjects they plan to teach. The rest permit middle school teachers to earn an elementary school certificate. Only nine states require all prospective middle school teachers to pass tests in their academic disciplines.

As a result, a substantial chunk of U.S. teachers lack a solid grounding in the subjects they teach. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 66 percent of high school teachers have either an undergraduate or graduate major in an academic field, compared with 44 percent of middle school teachers and only 22 percent of elementary teachers.

Elementary educators also tend to be less academically able than their middle or high school counterparts, and than other college graduates, as measured by college-admissions tests.

The same is true for college students majoring in education, instead of in academic disciplines. In 1992-93, 30 percent of college students graduating with education majors scored in the bottom quartile on their college-entrance exams, compared with 18 percent of humanities majors and 14 percent of those majoring in math, computer science, or the natural sciences.

Education Week’s analysis of longitudinal data for Quality Counts looked at every major decision point in the pipeline: It identified which students chose a major in education, decided to student-teach, entered the classroom, and remained in the profession at the end of four years. In general, the less academically able candidates, as measured by SAT and ACT scores, were the ones still teaching after three years.

Through the Back Door

Of course, standards mean nothing if schools can wiggle around them by hiring people who don’t meet the requirements whenever there’s a spot to fill. As a result, millions of students sit down each day before teachers who don’t have what their states consider the most basic requirements for being there.

That common practice--known by such euphemisms as “emergency” licensure, “incidental teaching,” or “misassignment approval"--is used to fill classrooms when teachers in a particular subject can’t be found, or when teacher-candidates haven’t passed a test or finished their coursework.

More than one-fourth of teachers enter the profession without having fully met state licensing standards, according to the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future. Twelve percent of new teachers are hired with no license at all, while another 15 percent hold temporary, provisional, or emergency licenses.

Some states have started to crack down on the widespread practice. New York, for example, has decreed that by September 2003, schools will not be allowed to employ teachers with temporary licenses. New Jersey did away with emergency licensure, except in such fields as bilingual and special education, in 1985. And Maryland has set new limits on the number of years teachers can work without meeting all its requirements.

But in many other states, the gates are open wide. An unintended consequence of California’s popular effort to reduce class sizes, for example, was an explosion in the number of unlicensed teachers.

“Americans wouldn’t dream of entrusting our homes or our health to an unlicensed professional--or one with fly-by-night training,” says Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association. “Yet time and again, we entrust the education of our children to teachers without adequate licensure. Such a lack of quality control would be considered criminally negligent in any other profession.”

Moreover, emergency permits are not the only way unqualified teachers find their way into classrooms. More common is a practice known as “out of field” teaching, in which teachers are allowed to spend at least part of their day teaching subjects in which they have little or no training. About a third of U.S. teachers each year are assigned at least one class a day for which they have not been trained.

As with emergency licenses, such teachers are not distributed evenly across schools. Out-of-field teaching is more common in high-poverty schools and small schools, among beginning teachers, and for middle school students and children of all ages who are in lower-track academic classes.

Eleven states permit teachers to instruct students for part of the day outside their content areas without obtaining special permission. Only 22 have the authority to levy penalties against schools or districts that exceed limits on out-of-field teaching, such as a loss of accreditation or funding.

But given the high demand for teachers and widespread shortages even of substitute teachers, such policies are rarely enforced. Only Florida requires by law that parents be notified if children are enrolled in a class taught by an out-of-field teacher. And no state so far has put that information on school report cards released to the public.

Tests, academic requirements, and other prerequisites for entering the profession are designed to shield children from incompetence. But from the perspective of a potential educator, they also cost time and money. The higher the barriers, the greater the investment a candidate must make before ever drawing a paycheck.

Some critics, moreover, challenge the idea that the convoluted licensing structures found in most states actually guarantee competence. And they suggest that many of the screens deter bright college graduates and would-be career-switchers--particularly requirements that lengthen the time and money it takes to become a teacher.

“I think that the new credentialing movement is wrong-headed,” says Eric A. Hanushek, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y. “All of the actions are likely to reduce the supply of teachers but unlikely to increase student performance.”

Scholarships, Signing Bonuses, and Stipends

To entice people into teaching, states and districts are dangling incentives that range from scholarship and loan-forgiveness programs to cash bonuses. Some offer housing and moving assistance, free graduate-level courses, and stipends for teachers who have earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a national program designed to recognize accomplished teaching. Massachusetts made headlines in 1998 when it decided to offer signing bonuses totaling $20,000 over four years to about 60 people who otherwise might not have considered careers in education. The state plans to offer 125 signing bonuses this year.

Many states also are trying to retain their veteran, master teachers. Twenty-four states and about 85 districts provide extra money for teachers who have earned national-board certification. Thirteen states give cash awards to successful schools, although only about half allow the money to be used for staff bonuses.

Yet most incentives are small, piecemeal efforts that serve relatively few comers. Only a handful of states, for example, have created clearinghouses to coordinate their recruitment effort. Only Massachusetts has created a permanent endowment fund--$60 million--to support its incentives.

Few of the incentives are aimed at the areas where teachers are needed most: either by subject or in hard-to-staff schools or districts.

Contrary to popular belief, the United States does not have an overall “teacher shortage.” But it does have problems of distribution in the supply of teachers.

Too few teachers are available in such subjects as special education, bilingual education, mathematics, and science. And too few people are willing to work in schools that are underfunded or in rundown or isolated areas. Studies suggest that new teachers, especially, prefer to work near where they grew up.

In California, 24 percent of the state’s schools do not have a single underqualified teacher. But in another 20 percent of the schools, more than one in five teachers is underqualified. Urban schools and those with many poor, minority, and limited-English-proficient students are far more likely to have high concentrations of such teachers.

“What’s happened is the distribution of qualified teachers has been radically skewed,” says Patrick M. Shields, a researcher at SRI International, a nonprofit research and consulting group based in Menlo Park, Calif. That, he adds, “has in some places started to tilt the scale to create an extremely dysfunctional system.”

Although the state has initiatives to increase the supply of teachers, Shields says, “none of this is targeted at the places that are most in need.”

Much the same could be said about teacher supply nationwide. While 27 states have scholarship or loan-forgiveness programs for prospective educators, only 18 target them to specific high-demand fields, according to a 50-state Quality Counts survey. And only 10 aim their program at candidates willing to work in hard-to-staff schools or regions. Few states offer incentives for colleges and universities or districts to train or retrain teachers in subjects where educators are most needed.

Alternative routes permit candidates who already hold bachelor’s degree to become teachers without completing a traditional education program. Such candidates typically complete their initial coursework during the summer before assuming full responsibility for a classroom under the supervision of a mentor teacher.

Such programs have shown success in attracting more minority teachers, math and science teachers, and candidates willing to work in urban schools. Few data, however, are available on how such teachers actually perform in the classroom or their effect on student achievement. But they generally score at least as well as traditional candidates on teacher-licensure exams.

Forty states have created alternative-route programs. But most are small in scale and differ widely in the support they offer novice teachers.

Moreover, easing red tape and offering signing bonuses cannot overcome a bigger problem: Too many teachers make too little money to stay in the profession over the long haul.

Opportunity Costs

Research conducted by Education Week for Quality Counts suggests that there are long-term costs associated with going into teaching, and that those costs grow as teachers get older.

The gap between the average annual salary of a young teacher with only a bachelor’s degree and a nonteacher with a comparable education was $8,192 in 1998. But for those ages 44 to 50 with a master’s degree, the gap ballooned to $32,511--or $43,313 for teachers vs. $75,824 for nonteachers. (See related story, Page 36.)

“You cannot be living in the United States in 1999 and not believe that teacher salaries are a great disincentive to educated people entering the profession,” argues Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. A recent survey of AFT members found that 39 percent were working second jobs to make ends meet.

Recognizing the problem, some states have raised salaries across the board, while others are paying beginning teachers more.

But critics suggest that the basic salary structure for teachers is flawed. Rigid salary schedules, which pay teachers based on coursework and years of experience, fail to reward performance. And they do not reflect the demands of the labor market.

For example, mathematics and science teachers--who typically are in high demand--frequently do not earn any more than teachers of other academic disciplines.

Some experts believe states should pay extra for teachers in high-demand subjects; those willing to work in hard-to-staff schools or districts; those who graduate from better colleges or post higher test scores; and those who possess greater knowledge and skills or raise student achievement.

Richard J. Murnane, an education professor at Harvard University, suggests that taxpayers would be more likely to support significant pay hikes for teachers if the salary structure were tied to competence.

Keeping Teachers on the Job

Higher salaries might broaden the pool of potential teachers. But pay alone won’t keep them in the classroom. Retention, rather than recruitment, may lie at the heart of the teacher-quality issue.

Research has found that new teachers improve dramatically during their first few years on the job. For that reason, experts say it is critical to retain teachers for at least five or six years so that they can reach their full potential.

“It doesn’t really solve the problem to recruit thousands of new people into the occupation if, in a few short years, many of them leave,” Richard M. Ingersoll, a sociologist at the University of Georgia, observes. “The data tell us that the vast majority of hiring that takes place in any given year is simply replacements for teachers who have just left.”

Salaries are just one of the reasons teachers bail out. A Quality Counts analysis of data from a five-year federal study known as Baccalaureate and Beyond provides insights into the other reasons teachers stay or go.

It shows that teachers leave schools that have discipline problems and ones where they perceive a poor overall school environment. Teachers get fed up with schools in which they are likely to be assigned to subjects they’re unprepared for, and schools with poor administrative support.

The analysis found that nearly 20 percent of the 1992-93 college graduates who began teaching by 1993-94 had left after three years. Teachers who were dissatisfied with student discipline quit at twice the rate of those who were not. Teachers who were dissatisfied with the school environment also were twice as likely to leave.

Such findings come as no surprise to Irene. When she left her job in Prince George’s County, Md., for neighboring Montgomery County, in 1999, she got nearly a $5,000 pay hike and better benefits. But, on balance, says Irene, who asked that her last name not be used, it was the working conditions that drove her decision. In Prince George’s County, the 2nd grade teacher had 28 children at all times. In Montgomery County, she has 21, and only 14 pupils for reading and language arts.

Her room is bigger, she has more supplies, and the roof doesn’t leak. She has more planning time, and is free from lunch or playground duty.

“I wouldn’t have remained in the classroom very long if I had stayed,” says the four-year veteran. “Most people don’t go into teaching to make a lot of money. The working conditions are probably much more important than salary.”

To support teachers during the crucial first few years, 28 states now require or encourage districts to create induction or mentoring programs for new teachers, in which veterans provide them with structured support while they gain experience. The analysis of Baccalaureate and Beyond data found that teachers who had not participated in such a program were nearly twice as likely to leave after their first three years of teaching.

But only 19 states mandate that districts offer induction programs to all beginning teachers, and, of those, only 10 foot some or all of the bill. Almost no state safeguards working conditions for novices by ensuring that they’re not teaching out of field or assigned nonteaching duties. Only North Carolina requires that local boards adopt policies prohibiting new teachers from being assigned any extracurricular duties without their written permission.

Moreover, few states tie support for beginning teachers to assessments of their classroom performance to determine whether they should receive a license to remain in teaching.

Twenty-seven states require the school principal or another individual to observe and evaluate new teachers. An additional four--Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina--require new teachers to be evaluated by teams that also include someone outside the school. And only Connecticut and New York require that the performance of novice teachers be assessed by independent, state-trained evaluators who do not work in the teachers’ schools or districts. New York requires beginning teachers to submit a videotape of a classroom lesson, which is assessed using a common rubric. Connecticut requires novices to submit a portfolio of work--including videotapes of their teaching, evaluations of student work, lesson plans, and other elements--to the state.

Most experts suggest that such evaluations would be far more effective at judging teachers’ competence than written exams.

Where Next?

But James W. Stigler, the co-author of The Teaching Gap, a 1999 book that compares videotapes of teachers’ classroom instruction in the United States, Germany, and Japan, says the problem in the United States is not teachers but teaching. “When we look at videotapes, we do not see evidence of incompetent teachers,” he says. “We do see teaching methods that are just less effective.”

American teachers, for example, rely more on rote procedures and memorization, and are less likely to push students to solve problems or gain understanding of underlying concepts. The current emphasis on licensure, Stigler argues, won’t address that gap. Instead, teachers’ working conditions must be improved so that schools become places where teachers have the time and support to examine, share, and revise their lessons. “What we need to do is not identify special people to become teachers,” Stigler says, “but figure out how to take the average teaching method and improve it.”

Some observers say the existing system of teacher recruitment, assessment, and licensure is so cancerous it requires radical surgery.

“The paucity of solid evidence pointing to the effectiveness of teacher licensure is striking: There is little connection between licensing requirements and high-quality teaching,” the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation concludes in a 1999 report, “The Quest for Better Teachers: Grading the States.”

The report from the Washington-based research organization proposes keeping regulation to the barest minimum--by verifying that teachers are not criminals, have a solid general education, and know their subjects. Principals would be free to hire the people they wanted and pay them based on performance and marketplace demands. Accountability for school performance would ensure that they sought competent teachers.

Others take the opposite tack. The National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future is working with a dozen states to improve teacher preparation, licensure, and assessment, by raising standards, encouraging more professional preparation, and providing more support for novices.

While the two approaches are widely divergent, they do share some common ground. Both agree that teachers need to know the subjects they teach. Both agree that more learning about how to teach should take place in real schools, under the supervision of master teachers.

And virtually everyone agrees that the existing system is broken. It fails to attract enough good teachers to the schools where they are needed. It does not screen out those who shouldn’t work with children. And, too often, it does not keep good teachers like Rachel in the classroom.

After weeks of agonizing debate, Rachel decided not to take any of the jobs she was offered last year. Instead, she has gone back to school full time, working on her doctorate in education.

“The thing is that I love teaching,” she says. “I was just tired of struggling. I think if the teaching profession were structured so that I could enjoy livable working conditions and make, at the very least, a lateral move, I would very happily have stayed.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2000 edition of Education Week