School & District Management

Book Argues for How to Improve the Teaching Corps

By Debra Viadero — April 27, 2010 5 min read
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A new book stitches together ideas—some of which may be controversial—for building an improved corps of teachers from the time they start their professional training until they retire.

“Research clearly shows that teacher quality is the most important schooling factor influencing student achievement,” write Dan Goldhaber and Jane Hannaway, the editors of Creating a New Teaching Profession, which is being published this month by the Urban Institute, a research organization based in Washington.

Yet, they add, “the myriad systems that govern the quality of teachers today are too often disconnected, incoherent, and out of step with the market mechanisms that govern the broader labor market.”

Among the bolder of the book’s suggestions is a call from Stanford University economist Eric A. Hanushek for systematically “deselecting” the least-effective teachers. He calculates that shedding the bottom 5 percent to 10 percent of teachers could, over 20 years, boost American students’ scores on international math tests to the level of their Canadian counterparts and raise the United States’ economic output by $200 billion.

“Relatively modest changes in the bottom end of the distribution have enormous implications for the nation,” Mr. Hanushek concludes.

In other chapters, experts advance or debate ideas for tying teachers’ pay to their performance,creating more-specialized teaching jobs, incorporating virtual teaching in schools, revamping retirement systems, and providing a national teaching credential so that teachers would not have to be recertified when they move to a new state. While none of the ideas is proven, the book says, they all may come at a time when dramatic actions are worth trying.

“If I’m sick and I’ve got a headache, I’m probably going to get an aspirin or a Tylenol,” Mr. Goldhaber, who is also a professor in interdisciplinary arts and sciences at the University of Washington Bothell, said at an April 19 event in Washington that was hosted by the Urban Institute. “If I’m told I have terminal cancer, I’m much more likely to try a radical, experimental treatment.”

One reason the teaching profession may be ailing in the United States, experts argue, is that it’s attracting less academically able students than it once did.

In his chapter, for instance, New York University researcher Sean P. Corcoran notes that the percentage of new female teachers drawn from the top tenth of their high school graduating classes shrank from 20 percent in 1964 to slightly more than 11 percent in 2000 as women began to follow other career paths that were once dominated by men. More than a third of new female teachers, on the other hand, came out of the bottom third of their high school classes in 2000—and that proportion hasn’t changed much since the 1960s.

In comparison, some countries that typically score high on international assessments draw teachers from the upper end of the academic-achievement spectrum, according to Mr. Goldhaber. He says that’s in part because, under the more centralized teacher-preparation systems in those countries, the number of entrants is often tightly regulated and there are fewer teacher-training institutions.

Promoting the Profession

Some countries also have measures in place that make teaching a more attractive profession. In South Korea, for example, teachers’ colleges get hefty public subsidies that allow them to keep tuitions low, and future teachers in Singapore can even draw a salary while they’re being trained. One way to attract more top talent into teaching in the United States, Mr. Goldhaber says, might be to offer a national teaching credential that is both harder to get and more portable than typical state-level teaching licenses.

At the district level, the book says, administrators also need to think more strategically about their human-resource-management systems. While private-sector businesses are becoming more aggressive at recruiting top talent and more rigorous about screening applicants, the trend in public school systems tends toward the opposite direction, researchers write in another chapter.

They say district officials must also consider how all the pieces of their human-resource-management systems—from hiring and compensation to teacher development and evaluation—work together.

“You could have a sophisticated screening protocol, but then salaries are too low to attract high-quality applicants,” said Michael M. DeArmond, the lead author of that chapter and a researcher at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Hiring the right person for the job, the book adds, may be key because research offers few clues on how to make teachers more effective after they’ve already been hired.

“Studies document a substantial investment [in professional development] being made across schools, districts, and states, with little evidence of a return,” writes Jennifer King Rice, a professor of education policy and leadership at the University of Maryland College Park. “The crux of the problem seems to be an incentive system that rewards teachers more for seat time than for performance.”

In another chapter, though, Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, calls for restructuring the entire profession. Mr. Hess sees teaching as a flat structure in which entrants are treated much the same as 20-year veterans; he argues, instead, for a more flexible, performance-based system in which teachers’ jobs—and their pay—may differ.

That recommendation got an endorsement from Joel I. Klein, the chancellor of the 1.1 million-student New York City school system, where a school staffed with a master teacher, lead teacher, and other more-specialized teaching positions is due to open in the fall.

“As long as I have to pay a physics teacher the same as a physical education teacher, school reform is never going to work,” Mr. Klein said at last week’s Urban Institute event.

Retirement Reconsidered

In the waning years of teachers’ careers, the book also says, incentives built into public school retirement systems also spur some burned-out teachers to stay on the job until their pension-wealth peaks, said Robert M. Costrell, a professor of education reform and economics at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

He and his co-authors make a pitch in their chapter for a more neutral system in which teachers’ retirement benefits aren’t based on their peak incomes and teachers don’t get penalized for “double dipping” if they want to stay on the job longer.

While many of the book’s ideas show promise, according to Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, she also warned against relying on narrow “value added” measures of teacher effectiveness to sort and pay teachers or applying private-sector solutions to problems in the teaching profession.

“We are not a niche market in education,” she said, “and we are not a business.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2010 edition of Education Week as Book Argues for How to Improve the Teaching Corps

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