How To Get More Of the Teachers We Need

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The policy statement from which the following is adapted was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation on April 20, 1999, on behalf of several dozen governors, chief state school officers, state board members, prominent education thinkers and analysts, and veteran practitioners. ("Deregulation Urged To Enrich Teacher Corps," April 28, 1999.) The complete text and a list of the statement's signers are available at

Our purpose is to suggest a more promising path than many policymakers and education reformers are presently following.

American schools aren't producing satisfactory results, and this problem is not likely to be solved until U.S. classrooms are filled with excellent teachers. About this, there seems to be a national consensus. How to get from here to there, however, is the subject of far less agreement. Our purpose is to suggest a more promising path than many policymakers and education reformers are presently following.

The good news is that America is beginning to adopt a powerful, commonsensical strategy for school reform. It is the same approach that almost every successful modern enterprise has adopted to boost performance and productivity: Set high standards for results to be achieved, identify clear indicators to measure progress towards those results, and be flexible and pluralistic about the means for reaching those results.

The bad news is that states and policymakers have turned away from this commonsensical approach when trying to increase the pool of well-qualified teachers. Instead of encouraging a results-oriented approach, many states and policymakers are demanding ever more regulation of inputs and processes.

We conclude that the regulatory strategy being pursued today to boost teacher quality is seriously flawed. Every additional requirement for prospective teachers--every additional pedagogical course, every new hoop or hurdle--will have a predictable and inexorable effect: It will limit the potential supply of teachers by narrowing the pipeline while having no bearing whatever on the quality or effectiveness of those in the pipeline.

A better solution to the teacher-quality problem is to simplify the entry and hiring process. Get rid of most hoops and hurdles. Instead of requiring a long list of courses and degrees, test future teachers for their knowledge and skills. Allow principals to hire the teachers they need. Focus relentlessly on results, on whether students are learning.

Today, in response to widening concern about teacher quality, most states are making it harder to enter teaching by piling on new requirements for certification. On the advice of some highly visible education groups such as the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, these states are attempting to "professionalize" teacher preparation by raising admissions criteria for training programs and ensuring that these programs are all accredited by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education. It is no surprise that this is happening. The regulatory route is public education's traditional solution. Yet the regulatory strategy that states have followed for at least the past generation has failed.

What makes state regulation of entry into teaching so dysfunctional is not that its standards are low but that it emphasizes the wrong things. The regulatory strategy invariably focuses on "inputs"--courses taken, requirements met, time spent, and activities engaged in--rather than results, meaning actual evidence of a teacher's classroom prowess, particularly as gauged by student learning. This is the wrong sort of regulation.

Teachers should be evaluated based on the only measure that really matters: whether their pupils are learning. This is not pie in the sky. William Sanders of the University of Tennessee has developed a technique that uses careful statistical analysis to identify the gains that students make during a school year and then estimate the effects of individual teachers on student progress. This technique allows policymakers, taxpayers, and parents to see for themselves how much teachers are helping students to learn. Yet few states focus their teacher-quality strategies on results.

The instruments that states are far likelier to use to assess teaching candidates--input measures, that is--are seriously flawed approximations of how good a teacher one will be. Research finds no reliable link between pedagogical training and classroom success. But this is not surprising. Much of the surest and best-documented knowledge about education is ignored, even denounced, by many approved teacher education programs, while the lore that they instead impart to new teachers (about favored methods and self-esteem enhancement, for example) has little or no basis in research. Insofar as there are links between teacher characteristics and classroom effectiveness, the strongest of these involve verbal ability and subject-matter knowledge. Yet burdensome certification requirements deter well-educated and eager individuals who might make fine teachers but are put off by the cost (in time and money) of completing a conventional preparation program.

The time has come to consider radically different policies to boost the quality of teaching in U.S. schools. The teaching profession should be deregulated, entry into it should be widened, and personnel decisions should be decentralized to the school level, the teacher's actual workplace. Freeing up those decisions only makes sense, however, when schools are held accountable for their performance--truly accountable, with real consequences for success and failure.

Trading accountability for autonomy does not mean sloughing off all regulation. Every child should be able to count on having a teacher who has a solid general education, who possesses deep subject-area knowledge, and who has no record of misbehavior. States should enact minimal regulations to ensure that these conditions are met while at the same time expanding the pool of teaching candidates by opening up more pathways into the classroom.

What would state policies look like if based on these assumptions? Four are key:

(1) States should develop results-based accountability systems for schools and teachers as well as students.

School-level accountability involves measuring pupil achievement and issuing report cards for schools. Such information should be disseminated to students, parents, and the public. States should reward successful schools and should have--and use--the authority to reconstitute or otherwise intervene in failing schools.

Principals need accountability, too. Their jobs and salaries ought to be tied to their schools' performance. But they need the information by which to hold their faculty and staff accountable. The state can help by providing student-achievement data, disaggregated by teacher, like those generated by the value-added system that Mr. Sanders developed for Tennessee.

(2) States should empower school-level administrators with the authority to make personnel decisions.

Authority must accompany accountability. All key personnel decisions (including hiring, promotion, retention, and compensation) should be devolved to schools. Quality control should be the responsibility of school leaders, who have freedom to hire from a wide pool of teaching candidates. It must be possible to remove incompetent teachers at reasonable cost and within a reasonable period of time, without sacrificing their right to due process protection against capricious and ad hominem treatment.

States should encourage differential pay so that schools can pay outstanding teachers more. It should also be possible to adjust teacher pay for labor-market conditions, subject specialty, and the challenge of working in tough schools.

To work well, this system obviously requires capable principals, education leaders who know how to judge good teaching and are prepared to act on the basis of such evaluations.

(3) States should enforce minimal regulations to ensure that teachers do no harm.

States should perform background checks for all teaching candidates and require prospective teachers to have a bachelor's degree in an academic field. They should also ensure that new teachers are adequately grounded in the subject matter they are expected to teach, either by requiring that they major in the subject(s) that they will teach or by mandating rigorous subject-matter examinations. (They may be wise to use both mechanisms and also let principals make exceptions when other compelling evidence is at hand.)

(4) States should open more paths into the classroom, encourage diversity and choice among forms of preparation for teaching, and welcome into the profession a larger pool of talented and well-educated people who would like to teach.

Policymakers should take forceful action to eliminate monopoly control and challenge "one best system" attitudes toward teacher preparation. Traditional training programs should be closely scrutinized for their length, cost, burden, and value. States should publish detailed factual information about individual programs and their graduates, data that outsiders can use to evaluate their effectiveness.

States should expand the pool of talented teaching candidates by allowing individuals who have not attended schools of education to teach, provided that they meet the minimum standards outlined above. States should encourage programs that provide compressed basic training for prospective teachers. States should also attract outstanding college graduates to the profession by using financial incentives such as scholarships, loan-forgiveness programs, and signing bonuses.

For too long, policymakers have focused overmuch on training teachers and not enough on recruiting them. They have tackled the quality problem by increasing regulation and expanding pedagogical requirements, even though this approach shrinks the pool of candidates while having scant effect on their quality. Forty years of experience suggests that this strategy is a failure. It cannot work. Indeed, it has compounded today's dual crisis of teacher quality and quantity.

States must also be willing to pay strong teachers well.

We offer something different. States that reduce barriers to entry will find not only that their applicant pool is larger but also that it includes many more talented candidates. Turning our back on excessive and ill-conceived regulations and focusing instead on student outcomes is the key. To attract and keep the best teachers, states must also be willing to pay strong teachers well--and to muster the necessary resources to do this.

Raising the quality of the U.S. teaching force is an urgent priority today, and some policymakers have begun to signal their receptivity to change. In his February 1999 State of American Education speech, for example, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley proclaimed: "We must make sweeping efforts to make teaching a first-class profession. And, then, we must hold schools accountable for results." He later added, "What else can we do? We can create rigorous alternative paths to give many more Americans the opportunity to become a teacher." We agree.

Vol. 18, Issue 34, Pages 37, 42

Published in Print: May 5, 1999, as How To Get More Of the Teachers We Need
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