The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Having fewer teachers would improve educational outcomes

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When you talk to politicians about education reform, you usually hear about school choice (if the pol is conservative) or raising teachers’ pay (if the pol is liberal). Both miss the point. The problem is we have too many teachers.

It’s not all that surprising when you consider the fad for small class size that permeated educational reformers for many years. The problem was that it was a farce and, in fact, counterproductive. As we now know, “Reductions in class size have also been the main reason behind the significant increases in expenditure per student in most countries over the last decade. And yet, Pisa results show no relationship between class size and learning outcomes, neither within nor across countries.” While we have been spending gobs of money hiring an army of teachers to teach smaller classes, for a few years now “everyone from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to philanthropist Bill Gates has urged districts to consider waiving class size policies in favor of giving more students a chance at being taught by a highly effective teacher.”

But cutting the number of teachers is not so simple. Everyone from college level teaching programs to teachers unions wants more and more teachers. Teaching schools want as many applicants as possible, each paying tuition regardless of the job market and the quality of the applicants. Unions depend on dues-paying members, the more the better, to fund union officials’ salaries and pay for lobbying campaigns. The incentives favor putting more students of questionable ability through more teaching programs of questionable effectiveness. It is not easy to reverse that pattern or convince parents that their child will do better in a class of 35 taught by a great teacher than in a class of 20 taught by an ineffective one.

Nevertheless, many credible reform advocates want to do precisely that, an Education Week report noted:

Groups such as the National Council on Teacher Quality have advanced one compelling argument for why policymakers should be concerned with supply-and-demand mismatches. If colleges produced fewer elementary-level teachers, the council argues, they could be more selective about whom they admit and give candidates more intensive experiences, including the full year of student-teaching that national organizations for teacher-college accreditation have endorsed.

Once we give up the idea that an army of mediocre teachers is better than a battalion of great ones, many other reforms can follow. In 2013, the Associated Press reported:

The nation’s teacher-training programs do not adequately prepare would-be educators for the classroom, even as they produce almost triple the number of graduates needed, according to a survey of more than 1,000 programs released Tuesday.
The National Council on Teacher Quality review is a scathing assessment of colleges’ education programs and their admission standards, training and value. The report, which drew immediate criticism, was designed to be provocative and urges leaders at teacher-training programs to rethink what skills would-be educators need to be taught to thrive in the classrooms of today and tomorrow.
“Through an exhaustive and unprecedented examination of how these schools operate, the review finds they have become an industry of mediocrity, churning out first-year teachers with classroom management skills and content knowledge inadequate to thrive in classrooms” with an ever-increasing diversity of ethnic and socioeconomic students, the report’s authors wrote.

We should be limiting or closing the rotten teacher training programs, tightening admissions requirements and thereby raising the bar for the profession. The result — not by government edict, but by supply and demand — will be higher salaries for the teachers who do make it into the classroom.

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In a recent symposium in the Wall Street Journal, Kate Walsh, head of the highly regarded National Council on Teacher Quality, argued:

It is far too easy to get into a teacher preparation program and far too easy to graduate from one. Three-quarters of the programs in the U.S. will admit students from the bottom half of college-goers. One-in-four programs set a lower bar to get into teaching than the academic standards set by the National Collegiate Athletic Association for qualifying to play college football.
Coursework is far too easy: A teacher candidate is 50% more likely to graduate with honors than all other graduates on the same campus. States have such low standards on licensing tests that candidates who get more answers wrong than right still get their teaching license. That lack of rigor in preparation for such a demanding profession is just unacceptable.
The public debate in this country on teacher quality has focused primarily on issues like evaluation and tenure—measuring the effectiveness of teachers already in the classroom. Instead of just looking downstream, we need to go up river to the source and focus on the entry point of the profession.

Once teachers are hired, they need to be mentored, evaluated and not kept in their jobs by inflexible seniority systems. Nevertheless, if the schools are not getting quality and well-trained teachers, they can hire and fire them around the clock and still not get excellent teachers. If charter or private schools cannot get high-quality teachers, they will not offer a meaningful alternative to poor public schools. (Some are resorting to setting up their own teacher training certification process, an experiment worth exploring so as to capture professionals from other fields who may want to enter the teaching field.)

The problem is far from insoluble. At the state level, as Delaware did a few years ago, admissions to teaching programs can be tightened to require a certain grade-point average and proficiency on entrance exams. These programs should be required to disclose their students’ track record in getting and holding jobs. Proven teaching strategies (e.g. phonetics) can be made part of the required curriculum. As for the federal government, if it remains a source of funding, taxpayers have a right to demand their dollars are not going to hire a fleet of incompetent teachers, but those who are rigorously trained. If the feds are going to get out of the business of funding schools and instead, for example, give vouchers to parents, they should make every effort to inform parents about the myth of small class size and the necessity of qualified teachers.

Unfortunately, mundane issues such as getting a quality teacher in every class tend to get lost in political discussions about federalism, school choice and Common Core. If politicians really want to do something about the state of K-12 education, they’ll commit to putting a quality teacher in every classroom and supporting state and local efforts to whittle down the legions of teachers to lean ranks of excellent teachers. It’s not easily reduced to a soundbite and doesn’t pack the punch of bemoaning “federal takeover of the schools,” but it might actually work.