Teacher Preparation

New Teachers Outdo Peers of Last Decade on Academic Scales

By Bess Keller — December 14, 2007 5 min read
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A new study concluding that teachers entering the profession today have higher academic qualifications than their counterparts a decade ago is credible and significant, but not cause for resting on laurels, teacher experts say.

The report, released this week by the Educational Testing Service, says the finding bodes well for greater student learning because of the evidence that teachers’ academic ability is tied to their effectiveness. It also concludes that a host of policy changes aimed at improving teacher quality have shown results, though how much each change counts is impossible to say.

“We’ve had over the last decade a number of [such] efforts, and this certainly suggests things are moving in the right direction,” the author, Drew H. Gitomer, said in an interview.

The research looked at 153,000 teachers or prospective teachers who took the Praxis II test as part of seeking licensure in 20 states in 2002 through 2005 and compared their academic profiles with those of test-takers in the mid-1990s. The Praxis is owned by the ETS, a nonprofit research and testing service based in Princeton, N.J.

Mr. Gitomer found that the more recent candidates had stronger grades as undergraduates and higher scores on the SAT college-entrance exam than the test-takers in the earlier group. For instance, some 80 percent of the 2002-2005 group had a B-average or higher, while only about 68 percent of the earlier group could claim grades that good.

The improvement occurred even though many more candidates than 10 years ago are entering the profession through alternative routes, the research says. Those who used alternative routes and those in traditional programs show equally strong gains over the earlier test-takers, Mr. Gitomer reported.

The improvements held equally for men and women, for different racial and ethnic groups, and across those aiming for careers in elementary and secondary teaching, the report says.

Less positively, though, the profiles of those seeking a license to teach in elementary school, special education, or physical education remained “markedly” lower, it says, than the profiles of those seeking to teach an academic subject in high school. And takers of the tests for middle school teaching—including experienced teachers seeking federal “highly qualified” status—“much more” strongly resembled elementary school teachers in their weaker academic qualifications.

Diversity Unchanged

Also worrisome is the lack of ethnic and racial diversity in the teaching pool, unchanged from the mid-1990s, according to the study.

“The nation is failing to develop a teaching force that in any way mirrors the changing demographics in this country,” Mr. Gitomer writes.

Still, he adds, requiring higher scores on the Praxis test, as many states have done, did not decrease the proportion of minority candidates, as some feared it would.

Mr. Gitomer said the improvement in the teacher-candidate pool, which he describes in the report as “quite remarkable,” was testimony to what policymakers can accomplish when a variety of strategies are aimed at the same goal.

Among the policy changes that could be in play, he writes, are higher state and institutional requirements for prospective teachers, state encouragement of nontraditional routes into teaching that are attracting candidates academically comparable to those in traditional programs, and more-rigorous accreditation standards for teacher-preparation programs. At the federal level, the No Child Left Behind Act may have helped by requiring that all teachers hold standard licenses and have mastery of the subjects they’re teaching.

Those who have been involved in the policy changes and more neutral observers alike agreed that the study was probably an indication of real improvements.

Frank B. Murray, the president of the Washington-based Teacher Education Accrediting Council, said that universities have worked steadily in recent years to raise the quality of their teacher-preparation programs. That endeavor was helped, he said, by a tighter focus on outcomes by both his group and the much larger National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

“You can’t marginalize teacher education as you did in the past,” Mr. Murray said.

Michael J. Podgursky, an economist at the University of Missouri-Columbia who studies the teacher labor market, applauded the study, which he called “careful.” But as did Mr. Gitomer, he pointed to some limitations of its data. Praxis test-takers do not all go on to teach, he noted, and the four states most populous states—California, Florida, New York, and Texas—do not use the test at all.

Some observers, such as Thomas J. Kane, a professor of education and economics at Harvard University, cautioned that academic records do not closely correlate with teacher effectiveness, and for that reason, recruiting academically stronger teachers may not be as important as assessing performance on the job.

Douglas N. Harris, a professor of policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, took a different tack. Looking across occupations, he said, cognitive ability is the best predictor of worker effectiveness, especially in complex occupations such as teaching. Nonetheless, a recent study of his own failed to find a relationship between teachers’ college-entrance-exam scores and their ability to produce state test-score gains by their students.

Another source of concern was that the study’s good news might tempt policymakers to mute their efforts.

Sandi Jacobs, the vice president for policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization, said she was a bit taken aback by the attention given to the study. “It’s kind of a drop in the bucket in terms of raising the quality of the teacher pool,” she argued.

“It’s OK to celebrate sometimes,” countered Mr. Gitomer. “A complex system like education needs to be hit on all fronts, and one of those fronts is the input of new teachers, and that seems to be improving.”

Staff writer Vaishali Honawar contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the December 19, 2007 edition of Education Week as New Teachers Outdo Peers of Last Decade On Academic Scales

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