Education Opinion

Two Avenues for Change

By International Perspectives on Education Reform Group — April 25, 2011 3 min read
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By Dan Goldhaber

If the question is how to change the quality of the teacher workforce, there are really only two answers. The happy answer is that the incumbent teachers in the system could modify their behaviors in ways to be more effective, and that this change in teachers could be brought about through professional development (PD). The unhappy answer is that it may be necessary to actually change the composition of the teacher workforce - i.e. who is actually teaching - in order to have much impact on the quality of the workforce.

Changing the mix of who is in the workforce is the unhappy answer for at least two reasons.

First, the politics: changing people is not like substituting one component for another in the production of a product. The transistor may be superior to the vacuum tube, but the vacuum tube doesn’t have a position about whether it is employed. Incumbent teachers, on the other hand, clearly do. Moreover, this opinion carries weight. Not only is teaching the single largest profession, but teachers tend to be politically mobilized.

Second, if changes to the mix of teachers is required for significant improvement in schools, then the pace of change is likely to be slow. Only a small slice of the teacher workforce changes annually due to turnover alone. Bigger shifts are conceivable. Education policymakers today are experimenting with radically different teacher retention and deselection policies. However these are not only likely to be politically difficult, but, in the short run, they may dissuade some talent from opting into the profession by making teacher jobs look significantly more risky.

Unfortunately, the weight of the evidence about PD shouldn’t make people very optimistic about the happy answer either. Dollars invested in PD have not resulted in big changes. Either the impacts aren’t there, or they are generally so small as to be difficult to detect. There is scattered support for the hypothesis that the lack of evidence for PD effects is a result of the general low quality of PD offerings. Plausible, but I don’t think that’s the only problem.

Susanna Loeb, Michael Goldstein, and I make the case in a recent Education Week article, that the effects of a program are likely to be limited if it doesn’t fit with individual teacher needs. The effects are also likely to be limited if teachers don’t have strong incentives for individual improvement. The bottom line is PD is likely to be a lot better if teachers are driving the details around what they receive based on a good understanding of their own weaknesses and a desire to address them. That does not look much like the organizational context for today’s PD delivery.

Of course, presenting teacher workforce change as an either or proposition is a bit of a false dichotomy as we likely need the right mix of changing the skills of incumbents and changing who is teaching. But, right now, one of the strongest arguments for shifting the policy emphasis towards the unhappy answer is that we have not been successful with the happy answer strategy. Despite billions of dollars of investment, PD has not radically transformed incumbent teachers. So, we better get a lot more serious about reforming the organizational structure into which PD is delivered if we are going to give ourselves a good shot at embracing the happy answer.

Dan D. Goldhaber is the director of the Center for Education Data & Research (CEDR) at the University of Washington-Bothell. His work focuses on issues of educational productivity and reform at the K-12 level, with a current focus on the broad array of human-capital policies that influence the composition, distribution, and quality of teachers in the workforce. For his recent work, see “When the Stakes Are High, Can We Rely on Value-Added?” and the CEDR publications page.

The opinions expressed in The Futures of School Reform 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.