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Teaching Profession Opinion

The Road to Teacher Quality

By Lewis C. Solmon & Kimberly Firetag — March 20, 2002 5 min read
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New federal money will help, but decisions closer to home must pave the way.

The current reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed into law this year by President Bush as the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, is further evidence that teacher quality has emerged as a top federal education priority. The teacher shortage and the teacher-quality crisis grew steadily through the latter half of the 1990s, fueled in part by state and federal class-size-reduction initiatives and teacher retirements. The need for a rapid increase in the number of teachers has led to the employment of many people who are poorly prepared to teach. A disproportionate number of these less experienced teachers are employed in high-poverty schools, and poor students have a much higher probability of getting a weak teacher.

The proportions of the problem are outlined in a recent report by the California Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning. It shows that 14 percent of California’s teaching force in the 2000-01 school year was not fully prepared to teach, meaning that the teachers were uncredentialed. These underprepared teachers are not distributed evenly throughout schools. On average, schools serving high numbers of minority and poor students have more than 20 percent underprepared teachers, whereas the school-level average is 12.5 percent. Moreover, schools that rank the worst academically have the highest percentages of underprepared teachers.

The data from William L. Sanders and others tell us that teacher quality is the single most important school-related factor in student achievement. In one large study, equally able 5th grade students with the bad luck to have had weak teachers three years in a row scored at the 29th percentile, while those who had three strong teachers scored at the 83rd percentile. And the work of Harvard University’s Richard Elmore tells us what every urban superintendent knows: Even well-designed systemic reforms fail in schools that lack the “internal capacity” to bring about reform. The key to internal capacity is the talent and energy of veteran teachers who, along with the principal, provide essential coaching and leadership.

We cannot expect the new ESEA to take the place of large state and local programs and budget efforts. Therefore, we should think of new federal aid as yeast, not as dough.

President Bush recognizes the difference a good teacher makes, and in his State of the Union Address, he made known his “goal for America: a quality teacher in every classroom.” The importance of teacher quality has not been lost on Congress, either. The new ESEA calls for a “highly qualified” teacher to be in every classroom by 2005. Title II of the legislation—Preparing, Training, and Recruiting Quality Teachers and Principals—devotes $2.85 billion for the purpose of improving student achievement by raising teacher quality. This amount is only 1 percent of what the nation pays its teachers, so it must be used strategically. We cannot expect the ESEA to take the place of sustained and large state and local programs and budget efforts. Therefore, we should think of Title II as yeast, not as dough.

Education leaders, policymakers, and educators need to develop a strategic plan for reforms that enhance teacher quality. Local and state schools chiefs and policy boards must act quickly and resolutely to allocate the funds in effective ways, or they will go into the same old, tired programs that are not making a difference today.

What are strategic investments? Consider the following:

  • Establish master- and mentor-teacher leadership roles for veteran teachers who have distinguished themselves in the classroom.
  • Create performance-award systems that confer bonuses based on value-added student achievement and professional practices.
  • Establish “scarce category” salary supplements for shortage areas such as math, science, and special education.
  • Using the leadership and example of master and mentor teachers, foster professional learning communities, especially in the most challenged schools.
  • Provide entry- level incentives and fast-track advancement opportunities for the most able recruits from college or from other careers.

Funds for all of the above programs are available in the ESEA. Here, for example, are some of the options at the state level:

  • Seventy percent of state funding in Title II is new money (ranging from $252,000 in Nebraska to $6.4 million in California).
  • Approximately $75 million of Title I, Part A, funds can be used for state academic-achievement awards that provide financial rewards to schools and teachers that close the achievement gap (ranging from $115,000 in Mississippi to $13.4 million in California).
  • Some $235 million can be used for comprehensive school reform (ranging from $479,000 in Vermont to $30 million in California).

And consider these changes at the district and school levels:

  • There has been an 18 percent increase in Title I grants to LEAs, or local education authorities.
  • Title II provides $2.7 billion in new funding for teacher-quality initiatives.
  • A total of $328 million is available in Title V, Part A: Innovative Programs.

Challenges are ahead for state and local decisionmakers. Even with the 18 percent increase in ESEA funding, the federal share of total education funding remains at about 7 percent. Many of these funds may already be committed to other programs. How can states encourage local decisionmakers to use their funds for new and unconventional programs when budgets are tight?

‘New money’ will make it possible to continue to fund old, effective programs while simultaneously implementing new ones.

One option is to look to the “new money” that has been appropriated. This money will make it possible from a budget standpoint to continue to fund old, effective programs while simultaneously implementing new ones. Another way for states to help bring about change is to create incentives, such as matching programs. The state can use its Title II funds to match local education authorities’ allocations from their Title II funds.

Many agree with the U.S. Department of Education’s claim that the No Child Left Behind Act is “the most sweeping reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since ESEA was enacted in 1965.” But words on paper, in and of themselves, are not what produce all-encompassing change; it is up to state and local education leaders. What they decide to do with these new opportunities can make a difference for the quality of America’s teachers.

Lewis C. Solmon, an economist and a former dean of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, is currently the senior vice president of the Milken Family Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif., and the director of the foundation’s Teacher Advancement Program. Kimberly Firetag is a research associate at the foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as The Road to Teacher Quality

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