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The Angry Moderate Reformer, Part II: Market-Based Teacher Preparation

Note: Jonathan Plucker, a Professor at the University of Connecticut, is guest posting this week.

I often ask groups to raise their hands if they know some fantastic public school teachers (every hand goes up), then to raise their hand if they know a teacher they wouldn't want their child to have (almost every hand goes up). This flies in the face of many policy discussions where some critics imply that all teachers are not good, while others take the "the profession is fine as it is" approach.

On balance, the U.S. has good teachers compared to other countries, with your odds of getting a high quality teacher increasing if you live in the suburbs, don't live in poverty, are white, etc. How do we ensure that all students have good teachers? In this post, I focus on teacher prep to simplify the argument, although there are obviously other factors involved.

American teacher preparation has remained largely the same for some time. Most teachers attend a university (usually public), where they emerge after 4-5 years with an education degree. After some additional bureaucratic requirements, they get a teaching license. They apply for positions, get hired, and start their career. They get tenured, work for 2-3 decades, then retire with decent pensions.

Of course, we've expanded alternative certification programs, several universities have graduate-only programs, and the Holmes Group caused major changes in teacher prep. But those innovations, for the most part, are no longer "recent," and most teachers still prepare for their profession within variations of the above. In the words of Linda Darling-Hammond, there's a "need for strong leverage to improve schools of education." More broadly, there's a need for leverage to improve teacher preparation. The best way to do that is to improve the market for teacher preparation.

First, some assumptions:

1. We know little about which types of teacher preparation prepare the most effective teachers.

2. Having this knowledge wouldn't help that much: The likely scenario is that certain programs help prepare certain teachers for certain teaching situations.

3. Members of a profession should have a role in deciding who joins their profession.

4. I have great faith in principals' ability to hire the best teachers for their context if we give them a good talent pool.

5. Regulations should be limited to setting minimum standards (e.g., expectations for content area knowledge), but mandating/limiting other coursework and requirements crosses into legislating via regulation, which never promotes innovation.

6. It's almost impossible to predict which creative solutions to a problem or issue will be successful; a better strategy is to encourage experimentation within a culture of evaluation, where "1,000 flowers bloom," and the profession decides which of those flowers is worth replanting widely.

Based on these assumptions, a market-based approach has distinct advantages. First, we can let the practitioners working "in the trenches" decide who is best suited to teach, by serving on professional standards boards and search committees. Second, if we promote a wider range of options for how one can become a teacher and widely disseminate the requirements and outcomes of each option, we can let people vote with their feet about the most appropriate program for them.

This would encourage competition among preparation programs by serving as an incentive to be creative, produce the best possible outcomes, and focus on efficiency by only requiring those courses that directly influence outcomes. If a program wants to require six years of credits and charge a high per credit fee, yet relatively few of their graduates get hired and/or tend to struggle when they get to the classroom ... more power to them. But over time, the combination of bad inputs and bad outputs will lead to fewer enrollees, and the opposite will be experienced by programs with good inputs and outputs.

When I describe this idea, the most common response is, "What would this look like?" Well, state departments of education could annually produce a factbook listing each accredited program, along with various inputs (number of credits required in content and pedagogy, cost per credit hour) and outputs both personal (average graduate debt, percent of graduates who find positions within one and three years) and professional (PRAXIS passing rates, percent still teaching after five years, links to reports evaluating graduate performance in the field). States can get out of micro-managing regulations that, for example, mandate how many pedagogy courses can be offered.

External evaluations, such as the recent NCTQ report, that are largely input-focused become meaningless in this scenario. Programs that are doing a good job have nothing to fear from this approach and everything to gain, and mediocre programs will face some rough sledding. And, most importantly, the teaching profession will gain back some of the control and luster it has lost in recent years.

--Jonathan Plucker

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