Teaching Profession Opinion

High-Performance Teacher Education: An Essential Component of the New System

By Marc Tucker — February 18, 2016 9 min read
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This blog is another in the series devoted to proposing reforms in the American education system based on the strategies that the countries with the most successful education systems in the world have been using. In this blog, I address the reforms that are needed in the initial preparation of teachers. Almost two years ago, our Center for International Education Benchmarking gave Linda Darling-Hammond and a global team of researchers she assembled a large grant to do a multi-year international comparative study of teacher quality. The issue of initial teacher preparation is one of the topics addressed in that study. The research for the teacher quality study has been done, and the analysis is in progress. The results should be available in a few months. The conclusions and proposals in this blog draw on research we and other scholars have done, including other research done by Professor Darling-Hammond, but not in the forthcoming book.

That said, let’s get right down to it. In the long paragraph below, I present what amounts to a composite picture of the policies and practices of the top-performing countries in the arena of initial teacher preparation. No one country does all of these things, although some come close. Were an American state to do all of these things, it would likely leap to the head of the pack worldwide in teacher preparation. I will call this the high performance model.

First, close all your poor-performing teacher education programs, leaving many fewer, and move those into your top research universities. Of course, when you do that, you are automatically making sure the remaining institutions admit students mostly from the top half of the distribution of high school graduates, because those are the only students admitted by these universities. Offer the top high school graduates a free ride in the higher education institution they attend. But, in any case, make sure that these new institutions admit only applicants who have strong high school academic records, demonstrate an ability to connect with young people of the age that they are going to teach and have a strong passion for teaching. Require them to deliver a demanding curriculum that assures deep mastery of the subject the future teacher will teach and real mastery of the craft of teaching it. Require all teachers to major in the subject they will teach—that goes for elementary school teachers, too, who will have to specialize in either mathematics and science or English and social studies. Make sure that they teach the teachers how to teach the courses in the core curriculum that your state requires the schools to offer. Ensure that they provide future teachers with research skills, so they will be able to survey the academic literature worldwide for the well-researched solutions to the problems their school faces and so that they can also use sound research methods to figure out whether the strategies they are using to improve student performance in their schools are actually doing so (see my forthcoming blog on school organization and management). Require all teachers to have master’s degrees. Make sure that the graduates of your new teacher education institutions have to take some pretty demanding exams to graduate, exams that are closely based on the skills and knowledge, including mastery of subject matter, you think they will need to be very successful teachers. Get rid of your “alternative route” programs that you have used to provide shortcuts into the teaching profession. You won’t need them anymore. Ditch your current licensing procedures, which allow anyone who has gotten a degree from a teacher preparation institution to become a teacher. But do this only after you have set up a system that requires new teachers to apprentice to a Master Teacher on the job for at least a year--preferably two--after they are hired as teachers but before they get a provisional license to teach (again, see my forthcoming blog on school organization and management), and which also empowers the master teachers to deny a license to teach to anyone who, in their judgment, does not have what it takes to be a good teacher. You will have so many first-rate teachers you will no longer have to give marginal candidates for full licensure a pass.

What all this amounts to, of course, is greatly raising the standards for becoming a teacher. Many will recoil from this, fearing that it will further reduce the number of teachers in our schools who come from minority groups. They would like to increase the number of minority teachers available to teach minority students, because those students are more likely to identify with and respond to minority teachers. But there is a hard reality here. For decades, minorities with college degrees, like women, had few career choices other than teaching. Now, like women, they have great opportunities in high status careers. If we chose to solve this problem by keeping standards for teachers low, we will continue to condemn minority students to low quality teachers. The only way to solve this problem is to provide minority students with first rate teachers, irrespective of the color of their skin, and make teaching much more attractive to minority teachers with strong academic backgrounds, which will draw many of those top performers into teaching.

What I have just proposed is, of course, the converse of what we now do in most states. We don’t recruit teachers. Our teachers are self-selected and mostly come from the bottom half of the distribution of college-bound high school graduates. If they can get into a higher education institution, we do not select them for this occupation. Anyone who can get into the institution can go the teachers college. We don’t restrict the right to offer a teacher education program to research universities. We don’t restrict admission to teacher education programs to young people with strong academic records in high school. Nor do we require applicants to have a passion for teaching or an ability to connect with young people. We don’t require elementary school teachers to major in the subjects they will be teaching. We don’t apprentice them to master teachers. In most cases, we offer very little support of any kind when they begin teaching. We don’t offer to waive their college tuition.

But the top-performing countries do these things. Different countries do different combinations of these things, which is what makes me so confident that we could be producing the most highly qualified teachers in the world if we simply combined the best policies from the systems that work. This is the high-performance model, and there is no reason we should not go for it.

There is, of course, one big catch. We will not get the top half of our college-going high school graduates to select teaching as a career unless we make teaching a much more attractive career choice than it is now. And many of you readers will say that is why what I have just described is a pipe dream, because there is no way we could pay teachers what we would have to pay them if we restricted admissions to young people with strong academic records. These are, after all, young people who could go into any of the high status professions.

But consider this: the United States spends more per student on elementary and secondary education than all but a handful of other countries. How can it be that these other countries, which spend less than we do, can afford to recruit students from the upper half of the distribution when we cannot?

We have a very wasteful system. This country produces twice as many elementary school teachers as we employ every year, a colossal waste. The data we have now on persistence rates in the profession for teachers vary widely, but even the most comforting of those figures tells us that graduates of teacher education programs in the U.S. stay in teaching less than half as long as the graduates of teacher education institutions in the top-performing countries. Consider what it costs to train two people for every job that will be performed by one person over the course of say, ten years, in another country. Consider the extra hiring costs.

But the worst waste is hidden. It takes about ten years for anyone to become expert in anything. If it is true that the average teachers college graduate is gone from teaching in five years, that means that a very large fraction of our teachers never develop the expertise in teaching that the average teacher in a top-performing country develops. The cost in lost expertise in teachers, and therefore in student learning, is staggering.

The story does not end there. When our education system in its current form was crystalizing in the early decades of the 20th century, the designers assumed that they would have, in fact wanted, a workforce with relatively low skills who would not demand much compensation and would do as they were told. They believed, chauvinistically, that by choosing women they would get more compliant teachers. They required the women to give up teaching as soon as they got pregnant, which is why it made no sense to them to invest in their training and development. Instead, they reasoned, they would invest in administrators—men, of course—who would be around a long time and would tell the women what to do. That is how we got an education system that carries far more management and specialist overhead than the top-performing systems.

The top-performers carry much less administrative overhead because they expect their teachers to work as professionals, so they need less direction and less specialist support.

Put all these things together and one can begin to see why it costs so much to operate our low-performing system. There are other reasons our system costs so much, many of which I will get to in the blogs that will come later in this series, but the point has been made: we can get much higher quality for no more money than we spend now if we design a system that is based on high quality teachers working as professionals.

Years ago, the people who developed the methods now widely used in manufacturing to produce high quality manufactured goods discovered that the cost of quality is zero. The cost of using quality manufacturing methods is offset, often more than offset, by the reduction in the waste that comes with low quality.

The real cost here is not dollars. It is political capital. But every country that now enjoys very high student performance with equity has had to spend that kind of political capital to get there. They, too, had relatively low quality systems for preparing teachers and had to deal with organizations and people heavily vested in the old system. It is not clear why the leaders of those countries could deal successfully with those challenges and we cannot.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers 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.