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Defining "Better" in the Teacher Workforce

Earlier this week, I shared an extended quote from Marc Tucker about the future of the teaching workforce in the US, in which he presents a dire perspective on the "quality" of people entering teaching today.

Since testing and accountability didn't turn out to improve education very much, national attention is now turning to teacher quality, with numerous reports and think tanks addressing the way we attract, train, and retain teachers and other educators.

At the center of most of plans for improving education by focusing on teachers is some sort of plan for attracting "better" people to the teaching profession. The first time I noticed this emphasis was in Eric Hanushek's comments to the Washington Post in reaction to the Vanderbilt merit pay study last Fall. Choosing his words carefully, Hanushek said:

The biggest role of incentives has to do with selection of who enters and who stays in teaching - i.e., how incentives change the teaching corps through entrance and exits. I have always thought that the effort effects were small relative to the potential for getting different teachers.

So apparently we want "different" teachers, but how should they be different from the typical person entering teaching today?

The McKinsey report argues that we should look for "top-third" talent, based on how well students do in college, and Marc Tucker says we should seek out people who are currently taking jobs at Google.

There's a certain intuitive appeal to selecting our "best and brightest" to be our nation's teachers; indeed, this is a large part of Teach for America's appeal. No one would argue that, hey, maybe we should get more people who didn't do so well in college to be our teachers. Even if the labor market is configured to create just such a scenario, no one will admit to advocating such a strategy for developing the teacher workforce. Of course we want better teachers.

But what do we mean by "better?" Clearly, it's possible to define quality teaching in terms of on-the-job factors, but what does "teacher quality" mean in regards to beginning teachers, when everyone is unproven?

If we read between the lines of Tucker and Hanushek's comments, most people define "better" as "smarter," at least as measured by things such as GRE scores and college GPA. There's certainly an argument for recruiting smarter people to the education profession. (And in case you're wondering whether I'm just being mean, you can see that GRE scores among educators tend to be much lower than the scores of people entering other fields.)

But would it really improve our education system to have smarter people working in education? The value-added answer, so far, seems to be "not really."

There's a strong push to measure teacher quality in quantitative terms, based on student test scores, and it turns out that it's very, very hard to predict this type of teaching "quality" in advance. In response, some have suggested firing a high proportion of teachers—those who have the least impact on test scores—after a probationary period. Researchers Doug Staiger and Jonah Rockoff calculated that the optimal rate of firing is around 80%, though they don't actually advocate this absurd policy.

Of course, defining a good teacher as one who raises test scores is too narrow a definition for most people; education is for building our society, not just producing test scores.

Value-added scores only tell us whether teachers are good at doing what someone in a position of power has decided is important. In other words, in a system that is designed to produce test scores, some people will be better than others at producing high scores. And these days, nearly all US school systems are designed to produce test scores.

It's painful to hear, but I think Marc Tucker is right when he says teaching is currently a blue-collar job. It shouldn't be, and I have nothing but respect for the professionals who tolerate (in Tucker's words) industrial working conditions in order to have the chance to make a difference in students' lives.

I choose to believe that the path to a better future for our country is not to find better score-producers, but to create a system in which we don't ask teachers to be cogs, but to be passionate, committed, creative professionals, dedicated to the challenging professional work of educating students—whole students—to be citizens, the kind of citizens who will lead our nation forward.

So, should we spend more money trying to recruit smarter people into teaching? I can't say the alternative has any appeal, but I think we have some major cost-benefit calculations to do as a nation. Can we afford to pay teachers as well as Google pays its employees? Or can we afford not to?

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