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The Academic Quality of Teachers: A Civil Rights Issue

By Sandra Stotsky — June 26, 2009 6 min read
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Although knowledge of the subjects they teach is the chief characteristic of effective teachers, knowledgeable teachers are not evenly distributed across public schools. Urban students tend to be taught by academically less able teachers than are their suburban peers.

The use of academically weak licensure tests for assessing prospective teachers’ academic knowledge, as well as instructionally biased licensure tests for assessing their knowledge of useful teaching practices, in effect discriminates against urban students, who depend far more than suburban students on the academic quality and effectiveness of their teachers for fostering their academic growth.

Federal and state policies should ensure that tests of subject-area knowledge are sufficiently demanding, and that tests of teaching practices are sufficiently evidence-based, so that urban teachers begin their teaching careers with more adequate academic backgrounds than they now do, and with a familiarity with teaching practices that are supported by evidence from high-quality research. There are several reasons most current teacher tests, especially for grades K-8, are inadequate as quality controls, and academically and pedagogically stronger tests are needed.

First, it is clear that today’s teachers as a whole were weaker college students than their undergraduate peers. According to a 2007 U.S. Department of Education report, for those who received a bachelor’s degree in 1992-93, scores on college-entrance examinations were inversely related to the subsequent likelihood of these graduates’ teaching in 2003. In other words, those with weaker scores were more likely to be teachers 10 years later than those with stronger scores. Other studies indicate a steady decline in the number of high-achieving women seeking to become elementary teachers or teachers of other subjects.

Moreover, we have an academically weaker teacher corps than other countries permit. Finland, for example, draws its teachers from the top 10 percent of college graduates. In contrast, we draw elementary teachers from the bottom 30 percent of high school graduates who go to college.

Thus, one must ask what supposedly assures the public that prospective teachers have an adequate grasp of their subject matter for the grade levels covered by the license they seek. Assurance is institutionalized in two ways: by a process known as “program approval” and by teacher-licensure tests now mandated by Title II of the Higher Education Act. Each state must send an annual report to the federal Education Department of the pass scores for each cohort of prospective teachers in each of the state’s own teacher-training institutions. Unfortunately, neither way has proven to be effective.

“Program approval” means that a state’s teacher-preparation programs are peer-reviewed every five to 10 years to determine if they prepare prospective teachers according to state requirements. These reviews cannot, however, guarantee that new teachers have an adequate academic-knowledge base for what they teach. That is because review teams typically don’t include academic experts, who can evaluate the rigor of required academic coursework for a program. Most, if not all, reviewers come from other education schools and are unlikely to recommend stronger academic requirements for the program they review than those required by their own programs. Indeed, they are unlikely to recommend strong academic requirements at all, because most education schools seem to view these as “elitist,” unlike expectations and requirements in most other countries.

While academic requirements for secondary school teachers are usually set by liberal arts departments as part of their required major or minor, education schools may set all or most of the academic requirements for generalist teachers, such as elementary teachers. This academic coursework may be in required educational methods courses or in required arts and sciences courses designed for prospective elementary teachers.

Unfortunately, there is enormous variation in the quality of the mathematics coursework required for prospective elementary teachers, as well as a generally low quality in their reading instructional coursework. In general, education schools have not ensured that their graduates have an adequate academic background for the subjects they teach. Lack of reasonable admission standards is one reason Arthur E. Levine, the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, recommends in his 2006 report “Educating School Teachers” closing down most of our education schools.

The second way in which the public is supposedly given assurance about prospective teachers’ grasp of the academic content of the license they seek is the state requirement that they pass a subject-area test for licensure. But many if not most current subject-area licensure tests for prospective teachers of pre-K-8 are academically weak. And their academic weakness is compounded by the relatively low cut score that most states set, usually for political reasons. The political problem is that many prospective teachers admitted to teacher-training programs for elementary education would not be able to pass a state test with a high cut score, which would, in turn, raise questions about whether their programs provide adequate support for those they admit, or whether they simply admit large numbers of weak students as tuition-paying bodies to justify the number of education faculty positions.

Regardless of where the cut score is set, however, academic limitations are not the only problem with current licensure tests. Many states also mandate tests of pedagogical theories and methods that tend to disparage practices that are actually beneficial to urban students. A case in point is the series of tests offered by the Educational Testing Service called Principles of Learning and Teaching, which are designed to assess what a beginning teacher should know about teaching and learning. But they discredit teacher-directed instruction and promote only those practices associated with student-directed learning, despite the fact that research on both reading and math instruction supports direct instruction for low-achieving and special education students.

How does this situation constitute, in effect, discrimination by these states? It does so in the sense that states put their urban schools at greater risk than their suburban schools by failing to ensure that the certified teachers hired by urban superintendents have passed licensure tests that are sufficiently academically demanding and do not bias them against the instructional needs of low-achieving, special education, or English-as-a-second-language students. Why are urban schools more vulnerable? As we know, private schools and most charter schools are legally allowed to hire unlicensed teachers and can seek more academically qualified and pedagogically eclectic teachers. Also, more suburban parents can hire tutors to address their children’s academic deficiencies. Finally, there is no evidence that professional development provides academically underqualified teachers with the academic content that enables them to raise student achievement.

Federal and state policies must ensure that subject-area licensure tests are sufficiently demanding academically, and that licensure tests of teaching knowledge are sufficiently evidence-based, so that urban teachers begin their careers with more adequate academic backgrounds than they now do, and with a familiarity with teaching practices that are supported (not contraindicated) by evidence from high-quality research. New teachers should be able to use a more diverse range of strategies than they are now taught in their preparation programs.

The federal Education Department could require all states to use common sets of academically demanding standards, drawn up by discipline-based organizations, as the basis for their subject-area licensure tests. The department also could require all states to use a common set of pedagogical standards/competencies based on a body of high-quality research for the tests of pedagogical theories and methods they may also require. Among the reports that should be drawn on to find research-based instructional standards are those by the National Reading Panel and the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as The Academic Quality of Teachers: A Civil Rights Issue

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