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Get Real About Recruiting Highly Effective Teachers

There's no disagreement that the most important in-school factor in determining student achievement is the quality of the classroom teacher ("How a Lincoln High teacher gets all his students to pass the AP Calculus exam," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 4).  Instead, the debate is whether it's possible to recruit and retain enough highly qualified teachers in science, math, special education, and bilingual education where the need is acute.

California serves as a case in point ("How California can entice young people back to teaching," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 8).  According to federal data, enrollment in the state's teacher preparation programs plummeted from more than 719,000 in the 2008-09 school year to 499,800 in the 2012-13 school year.  The number of teaching credentials in special education fell by 21 percent between 2011-12 and 2013-14.  In math, the number was even more dramatic, dropping by 32 percent.

But California is not alone.  The Clark County school district in Nevada began the present school year with nearly 1,000 classroom vacancies.  By December, it still had more than 700 open positions, with unlicensed substitutes filling the gaps.  Louisville, Nashville, Oklahoma City, and Providence are among other large urban districts having trouble finding teachers, according to the Council of the Great City Schools.           

Even if it were possible to provide incentives to attract more college graduates to teaching by covering tuition and living expenses, as well as by forgiving student loans, the question remains how many candidates will be highly effective once they are in the classroom.  The magnitude of the problem is daunting, considering there are 3.2 million teachers in 98,000 public schools serving 48.2 million students.

Researchers have attempted to provide answers.  A new study from the University of Colorado claims that first impressions matter greatly.  In math, teachers show little movement in their performance.  Those who start out at the bottom rarely move up to the top.  More specifically, two-thirds of the initially lowest performers continue to be below-average performers even three to five years after beginning their careers.

Even when licensure and SAT scores are taken into account, along with the competitiveness of the undergraduate institution and the teacher preparation program attended, the outcomes are not any more predictable than first impressions.  This finding will disappoint corporate reformers who scoff at subjective impressions.

Yet it should come as no surprise.  Great teaching has always been more art than science.  Often, the least orthodox teachers are the ones who are able to engage and excite their students.  They are essentially virtuosos whose performances are no more capable of quantification than those in music, dance, and theater.  The accomplishments of Jaime Escalante of "Stand and Deliver" fame in the Los Angeles Unified School District were not due to following a script but to his innate sense of how to connect with his students.

More recently, Anthony Yom, who teaches Advanced Placement Calculus at Lincoln High School in the same district, made headlines when one of his students was among only 12 in the world to post a perfect score on the grueling exam. For the third consecutive year, all of his students passed the demanding test.  Yom's students came from low-income, minority homes, just as Escalante's did.

The problem is that it is impossible to produce enough Escalantes and Yoms  to staff schools nationwide.  True talent has always been in short supply. Generous incentives can help attract better candidates, but it's unrealistic to assume they can duplicate the performances of these two virtuosos.

The best that can be expected is to shift the average performance of teachers slightly upward. That's certainly a worthwhile goal pursuing, but it's not the same as expecting miracles.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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