Teacher Quality Critical to Education Reform: Bill Neglects Main Cause of Low School Achievement. (Viewpoint)

By Caron, John | National Catholic Reporter, March 15, 2002 | Go to article overview

Teacher Quality Critical to Education Reform: Bill Neglects Main Cause of Low School Achievement. (Viewpoint)


Caron, John, National Catholic Reporter


Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and President George W. Bush recently were pictured on the front pages of newspapers smiling, shaking hands and congratulating each other on the passage of the Education Bill. Republicans and Democrats both have concentrated on education as an important issue with the voters, and many people have considered the quality of education to be the most important domestic issue facing our country. The Kennedy-Bush mutual congratulations may be premature. If the cause of a problem is not properly identified, the solution will be ineffective -- and the cause has not been properly identified.

Why are the educational results of our schools, especially inner-city schools, so disappointing? A study led by Dr. William Sanders of the University of Tennessee and reported in January 2000 in The New York Times offers some startling data on the subject. The research investigates annually the factors in poor school outcomes around the state of Tennessee. The analysis, now mandated by the state, has statistics dating back to 1992 -- 6 million student records and evaluations of more than 30,000 teachers. The research examines class size, the location of the school (urban, suburban, rural), per-pupil expenditure, ethnic make-up, percentage of children eligible for free and reduced-cost lunches, the heterogeneous or homogeneous makeup of the school and the quality of the teachers. The study is discovering that by far the quality of the teachers is the most significant factor. Teacher effectiveness is 10 to 20 times as significant as other factors.

The study traced individual children through sequences of teachers. For example, Sanders compared the progress of two children who left the second grade with the same achievement level. One child who was taught for the next three years by teachers evaluated in the top 20th percentile scored in the 96th percentile in the fifth grade math test while the other child taught by teachers evaluated in the bottom percentile scored in the 44th percentile. "Purely as luck of the draw," Sanders told The New York Times, "the difference was huge, huge, huge." Outside influences such as illness and parent involvement were considered as well as those mentioned above. When most students in a particular teacher's class have a downward path after previously achieving satisfactorily, the evidence is strong that the teacher is not as effective as he or she should be.

One of the problems is that the education achievement level of people entering the teaching profession has dropped, according to state reports published in 2000. In Pennsylvania, Secretary of Education Eugene Hiskak reported that undergraduates in schools of education had only a C+ average in high school. In Massachusetts, nearly 60 percent of the prospective teachers who took the state teacher certification test flunked. The Connecticut State Department of Education reported that high school seniors planning to become teachers had an average SAT score of 973, which is 44 points below the average of all Connecticut seniors. A 1997 report by the National Center for Educational Statistics found that education majors were placed in remedial courses at higher rates than their counterparts in the humanities and social sciences. In New York state, 37 percent of the teachers and prospective teachers failed the math certification test in the 1999-2000 school year while 25 percent failed the English exam.

The problem is not only recruiting good people but retaining them. According to Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, 30 percent of all teachers and up to 50 percent of teachers in urban schools leave their jobs within five years. …

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