Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

How Can We Improve Teacher Quality? Recruit the Right Candidates, Retain Teachers Who Do Well, and Ensure Strong Preparation, Good Working Conditions, and Quality Professional Development

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

How Can We Improve Teacher Quality? Recruit the Right Candidates, Retain Teachers Who Do Well, and Ensure Strong Preparation, Good Working Conditions, and Quality Professional Development

Article excerpt

We live in an era of impassioned debate about teacher quality. How should teachers be prepared? By whom? Where? How should they be evaluated? What is good professional development? Should we eliminate tenure? Should we determine a teacher's quality by her students' test scores? If not, then by what metric?

We care about the teachers who work with our children, so it isn't surprising that discussions about these questions often grow inflamed. But the passion of the debates sometimes obscures the fact that the core questions are good ones. There may be no easy answers, but research does tell us a few things about teacher quality.

For one, we know that teachers matter (Nye, Konstantopoulus, & Hedges, 2004). We know that almost all U.S. children, no matter where they live, will be academically endangered if they have poor teachers for three years in a row. We also know that low-income elementary students who have good teachers three years in a row will have test scores that are more like those of their middle-class peers. And we know that the scale of the "problem" of creating a high-quality teaching workforce is astonishing: There are nearly 4.5 million teachers in the U.S.

So, how should we work toward improving teacher quality? Research suggests a systems approach: Recruit the right candidates, retain teachers who do well, counsel out poor teachers, offer strong initial preparation, and provide good working conditions and quality professional development (Wilson, 2009; National Research Council, 2010). There is also evidence that the appropriate unit of analysis when it comes to judging teacher quality isn't always the individual teacher. Quality teaching also depends on the schools where teachers work, their materials, and the communities of professionals that surround them.

Recruit good candidates

In some countries, teaching is highly regarded work, but, in the U.S., teaching is generally not seen as noble or culturally valuable. Americans don't expect their "best and brightest" to pursue a teaching career. University departments don't encourage their most accomplished students to become teachers, and teachers in training generally have lower aptitude scores than their college peers.

Some of the most high-profile attempts to change "business as usual" in teaching have focused on this issue: How to recruit better candidates to teaching? Teach For America (TFA) is the best known of these efforts, which also include Math for America, UTeach, and the Teaching Fellows. Each program encourages recent college graduates from elite schools to become teachers. The programs are highly selective, with acceptance rates of 1 in 7.

Most research conducted on these programs has been on TFA and has examined differences in student outcomes in mathematics and English/language arts; in general, research suggests that students of TFA teachers do at least as well as students of new teachers who come through other pathways (Decker, Mayer, & Glazerman, 2004; Wilson, 2009). A bone of contention concerning TFA's success is its attrition rate. Estimates vary: some research suggests that TFA recruits are two or three times more likely to leave teaching than graduates of college-recommending programs (Helig & Jez, 2010), other research suggests that over 60% of TFA teachers remain as public school teachers after their two-year commitment (Donaldson & Johnson, 2011). Other programs have higher retention rates; UTeach reports an 82% retention rate of its graduates after five years.

The leaky bucket

We also know from research that first-year teachers are significantly less effective than teachers with more experience (as measured by their students' test scores), but improve steadily over the first five years of teaching. This makes sense; teaching is practice-based work that requires experience to master. Unfortunately, about 30% of teachers will leave the profession permanently within five years of walking into a classroom, which means that all of the resources--time, money, mentors--that went to support those teachers left with them. …

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