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Education Opinion

A Good Teacher Is Hard to Find, Continued

By Daniel Lautzenheiser — July 10, 2012 2 min read
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Note: Daniel Lautzenheiser, program manager in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is guest posting this week.

A few lingering thoughts from yesterday’s post that didn’t fit cleanly into the original narrative.

First, by way of clarification, the “loose on entrance and tight on results” standard was meant to refer to flexibility around credentialing and recruitment (and, by extension, issues such as pay and tenure) of new teachers, not the quality of those teachers. It was not a call to open the floodgates to a raft of inexperienced beginners, lower admissions standards to education schools, deprofessionalize the job, or anything of that sort. As I said, we should be “encouraging maximum flexibility for states, districts, and charter schools to recruit teachers as they see fit while seeking to find better ways to identify good and bad teachers, reward the good ones and keep them in the classroom, and move out the bad ones.”

If anything, we should probably be more concerned about quality control than we already are. In part, the problem is one of size: in a country that hires almost 3.5 million teachers (about 10 percent of the entire college-educated workforce), there’s going to be differences in quality from the best to the worst teachers. This is unsurprising. But further, there is some evidence that education tends to have somewhat weaker quality controls in place than other professions. In a chapter in A Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom, University of Texas professor David Leal shows that both passage rates on state teacher certification exams and completion rates for student teaching hover at about 95 percent; by comparison, he notes, the average passage rate for state bar exams was 63 percent. What’s more, The New Teacher Project’s influential The Widget Effect report in 2009 shows that an astounding 99 percent of teachers are judged satisfactory by school districts. Regardless of what the “right” number is for passage rates or evaluations, these figures seem high.

Ultimately, our system isn’t designed to properly identify good and bad teachers, reward the best ones, and move out the bad ones. We largely recruit teachers from education schools and force them through traditional chains of certification. When they enter the classroom, we pigeonhole them into a kind of job where opportunities for advancement are largely outside the classroom and where pay is often determined in a rigid format of years of experience and credentials. Tenure protections mean it’s more difficult to remove underperforming teachers.

This is an entirely wrong way to go about creating a dynamic profession that rewards talent, is attractive to the nation’s top students, and is in the long-term interests of children. We know good teaching when we see it, and the country is filled with good teachers--but some of them haven’t found their way into the classroom because of restrictive barriers, an outdated pay scheme, a system that does a subpar job identifying and rewarding talent, and limited opportunities for growth. So far we’ve been too eager to try and find a secret formula for these big questions and blindly replicate it, instead of allowing for more flexibility in how districts and schools recruit, evaluate, and pay their teachers.

--Daniel Lautzenheiser

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.