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Teacher Quality: Time for a National Policy?

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Improving teacher quality is absolutely necessary to closing the achievement gap and attaining higher levels of achievement across the board, according to Linda Darling-Hammond in this Education Week Commentary.

While some studies have concluded that teacher quality is not linked to achievement, Darling-Hammond writes that without well-qualified teachers in all classrooms, we will never close the achievement gap or meet the requirements mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act.

Darling-Hammond calls for an aggressive national policy modeled after the federal government's intervention in the field of medicine. Just as subsidies, clinical programs, and training hospitals have helped to supply quality medical professionals to high-need areas, deliberate measures such as targeted recruitment incentives, service scholarships, and mentoring programs, would lower teacher-turnover rates and place well-qualified teachers in schools that need them.

What do you think? Is a national policy on teacher quality and supply needed? What should it include?

32 Comments

Agree fully that TEACHER PREPAREDNESS AND EFFECTIVENESS should be among top priorities.
However, today's TEACHER COLLEGES are ill-prepared themselves to turn out such teachers.
Most professors tell others how to teach but would not be caught dead in a real live public-school classroom themselves.
Our top priority needs are for updated curricula as well as updated teachers and professors. (E.g., need subjects like effective personal communications, quantitative understanding and reasoning (math), career requirements, engineering, health sciences, etc.
Tests show that we don't even know how to teach math and other current-curricula subjects effectively. The situation for updated curricula and subjects is of course much worse.
We must bring other professionals and aids like videos and simple booklets (including NON-teacher-college graduates) into the education process.
I am now trying to start a series of "Educational and Career Enrichment Centers" for INTERESTED youngsters and adults. They would be staffed by (retired?) volunteer-professionals like engineers and accountants.
For more info Email me at [email protected]

I am not sure where some of commentators on this subject went to school, but the diversity of opinion suggests that there does need to be a somewhat closer examination of the teacher preparation process. One aspect of teacher training that stands out is the irony of university professors, with training that ammounts to the acquiring of one or two graduate degrees, are training teachers that need certification in individual states and are tested, using one of several exam batteries before certification. The irony is in the special regard given the degree. Teachers are apparently not granted the professional courtesy of their degree weilding professors. A start towards improvement of teacher training would be an accreditation of teaching degrees and an elimination of individual certification and licensing programs.

What dooms Darling-Hammond's argument is her demand that all things be equal. That's just pie-in-the-sky thinking. The reality is that even if you have all the college kids who want to become teachers go through the same course, they are still not going to be equally prepared. They are not all going to score the same in those courses that they take; some will understand the material better than others, and passing any course in our educational system is not an all-or-nothing venture. It doesn't matter whether a student earns an A, B, or C. All of those are considered passing scores.

And to become a well-prepared teacher, an expert teacher, or a master teacher -- you don't learn that in a college. That comes with time in front of kids. I'm certainly not the same teacher I was when I started, and I could certainly have not been taught in college many of the things I've learned in the classroom. While we can cover a lot of things with new teachers to help them be ready, they just don't recognize what's coming at them. It takes time to become a good teacher. Any skill requires time to perfect. Why should teaching be any different?

But I really have a problem with Darling-Hammond's assumption that the only way to solve this alleged problem is to have a national standard put in place. Solve local problems, solve regional problems; state and national "problems" disappear when we take care of things ourselves. Look around the place you live, work, and teach. Start there.

I agree with Andres. Competence comes from practice over time.

I recently taught in a very small school in a rural district where a local woman was doing her internship. All her professors talked about her as being brilliant. Yet in the classroom she was a diaster. She had no practical understanding of effective lesson plans and time management, curriculum, classroom management, collaboration, and cooperation. She was being supervised by a friend who was teaching under an emergency credential, and consequently the intern was granted her credential.

The biggest problem I am encountering has to do with the myth of hiring "young, energetic, highly qualified recent graduates." The majority of my reading/language arts colleagues are over 50 with 5+ years experience, most with Master's degrees, and all in the upper pay range. Many are teaching under Title 1. They all live with pink slips, downsizing, age bias, or being forced to take classroom assignments.

I have been trying to move to a new district. I have 3 credentials: multisubject, special ed, and specialist reading/language arts. I have been allowed only 3 interviews in the last 1.5 years. Each time a young, newly graduated person was chosen. I am over 55.

The message is clear: experience does not count.

A national policy on teacher quality and supply cannot guarantee equity in the classroom. Teacher quality is only one ingredient in closing the achievement gap. There are other factors to consider. Other studies/research have shown that factors such as lack of professional support, poor leadership, inadequate resources, dilapidated facilities, unsafe environments, salaries, have all contributed to academic disparities in schools. Teacher competence comes from practice over time. Support the veteran teachers who become the "models" and "mentors" who have perfected their teaching skills over time.

Surely teacher education programs can always benefit from improvement. However, the constant litany of criticisms from some 30 different entities, all with different agendas from control of the curriculum to political correctness make it nearly impossible to target any coherent strategy for improvement. Improvement of one factor is regarded as a positive by one constituency and a negative by another. The resultant 30 way tug of war over the preparation of teachers results in political stasis.

It sort of reminds one of the story of the itinerant salesman who becomes stranded on a back country road and happens upon a small farm house with many farm animals populating the barnyard.
The farmer, being a kind soul, invites the hapless salesman to dinner and to stay the night.
He is treated to sumptuous farm feast, for those who are familiar with same. He has a restful night, rises in the morning and is likewise treated to a sumptuous farm breakfast, bacon, eggs, grits and gravy, hot coffee and the like.

The farmer's wife even made him pork sandwiches for him to take on his trek to the nearest town. On his way out, the salesman spotted a large hog, limping on, of all things, a peg leg. He turned to the farmer and said "I don't believe that I have ever seen such a sight." And the farmer replied, "Well, what do you think you 'et for supper and breakfast?" The salesman was horrified and said "Why don't you just kill the pig? It would be much more humane!" And farmer replied, "We wouldn't possibly kill him! He is our most valuable pig!"

LDH needs to define a nationally available performance asessment for teachers as opposed to a state teacher exam. Many people can pass a state teacher exam but it takes a special individual to be successful in front of a classroom full of kids. Significantly more $$$$$ is the only variable that will attract better teachers to high risk, inner-city classrooms. Any pragmatic realist graduating from college will ask tehmselves prior to entering the field: should I teach somewhere (for more money) for the next thirty years where it's safe and the kids and their parents support education or should I risk my personal safety trying to work with predominantly at-risk, learning disabled students, and no parental support? Sadly, human nature tells us, only a few will choose the latter

As a highly qualified teacher in four subject areas under NCLB I have often discussed this very issue with my colleagues in math and science. We ivariably have come to the same decision: We need to teach to mastery. Every educator knows that if students do not master a concept (especially in mathematics) before building upon it, they will have a weak foundation. Perhaps the answer is not entirely teacher quality, but rather the pace teachers are forced to follow in the United States, when we all know if we use good pedagody and teach to mastery students will succeed.

We know that during the first five years in the classroom the learning curve is steep and many drop out. While there are elements of this in any profession, teaching is somewhat unique in that it doesn't incorporate that learning curve into any formalized program of structured support, supervision and ongoing study.

This becomes wasteful when we operate as if "a teacher is a teacher is a teacher." We can't afford the kids that get lost during the first year or two of teachers who ultimately either sink or swim. We can't afford the loss of salvageable teachers who give up during those first years. And we cannot afford to keep those who don't get it on their own but keep on teaching anyway.

Had I gone directly from my student teaching experience into a classroom, I may have left education, or I may have learned how to survive. As fortune had it, I ended up working with kids outside the school environment and found much greater support for my own learning. When, many years later, I spent time as a substitute, I had developed many skills and abilities with regard to classroom management (learned from social workers, rec leaders, parents and others) that were never considered in my undergrad program.

There are certainly models to support inexperienced teachers (co-teaching, learning communities, mentoring, etc), currently available without building new structures in teacher education. Institutionalizing some of these models into a formal structure of growth that recognizes levels of achievement (Master teacher, etc), at the state and national levels would certainly help.

The move toward Highly Qualified Teachers fumbled the ball by allowing the grandfathering of teachers experienced in content areas for which they were not educated. We will have to grow beyond this in some formally structured way--lest we doom a generation of students until these teachers retire.

I am a Pakistani teacher. My experience fully support that teacher quality highly contribute in student achievement. In the context of my country, i would like to say that if we give due attention to: (1)the way in which the teachers are appointed, (2) the way in which they are trained and (3)the way in which they are utilized,we will resolve more than 70% of our educational problems.

The issue with haveing a national policy is federal follow through. Are they going to appropriate funds appropriately? Are they going to ensure that all people, men, women, all nationalities, languages, etc receive equal finding? How is this national standard going to affect teacher salaries? Will teachers be paid according to degree of training? Most salary scales now are based upon the degree a person has. Will this national standard give higher pay to teahers that meet this standard? Or higher pay for being "highly qualified"? I know some of these things are in place in some states, but would these be national requirements?

Additionally, some of the measures used to ensure that a teacher is qualified are asinine. Such as the PRAXIS, which has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with a person's ability to teach a child effectively, but it hangs MANY student's in the balance between teaching and working at McDonald's. I graduated from Bowie State University, one of the top teacher education schools in Maryland, and we HAD to pass all required PRAXIS exams in order to graduate; our degree was only granted if we completed all state certification requirements. This made Bowie graduates highly saught after, and encouraged other colleges in the state to follow suit. The problem is that the PRAXIS, much like the SAT, holds back many who are not good test takers, but WONDERFUL teachers. These students never graduate, or are held hostage for several semester because of te difficulty of the tests (I am a very good test taker, and I struggled through the test, although I did pass all 7--yes seven--PRAXIS I and II tests I had to take).

This type of policy would make sense if it was truly going to be equitable across the board, but as we've seen with NCLB, that is not the case with federal mandates. There are many people who teach that are HORRIBLE and should be banned from any job where they have to work with children. But these standards could possibly affect some people who are not good test takers and not good with more complex subjects, but are wonderful teachers and are compassionate people with great love for children.

Teachers are the critical ingredient for providing a quality education to students. Not only because of their content knowledge and pedagogical skills, but also because they forge human relationships that influence students' motivation and effort to learn. It is this element that makes teaching an especially challenging job--and sometimes a very rewarding one as well--for teachers and their students. Education is a human process, not just a technical one.

We definitely need policies that promote the professional development of teachers in all three areas: knowledge, skills, and disposition. However, without support for the latter, neither the profession nor students will reap maximum benefit.

I agree with Dr. Hammond's call to address the overall quality of our teacher preparation and that it should be a high natonal priority. Mr. Schacter also makes some important observations in his comments on the need for those who prepare teachers for the classroom to be qualified themselves. Rather than bring in more non-educator professionals, however, a more logical approach would be to make greater use of those teacher leaders who have proven themselves in the classroom. Allow them the option to continue teaching, but also to help train new teachers as full or adjunct faculty; as team teachers with the university faculty; as intern or traning sites for teacher candidates. It is shockingly depressing how few teacher ed programs do this.

I agree with a lot of what Margo said. I was a highly "salvageable" math teacher who left to more than double my salary, but I'm still finding ways to teach. Someone said on one of these boards last year that too often teachers, especially at lower grades, are poor mathematicians who carry math-phobia into the classroom and pass it on to new generations. I asked a family friend who is a math professor and teaches math to teachers-in-training if he agreed with this assessment. His response was "it is fact", and added that these teachers will stress math memorization over reasoning. The problem with this is that memorization may be adequate for multiplication, but it does not transfer to algebra. Reasoning is a critical skill for algebra, yet it is lacking because it is not encouraged at lower grades. I'm well aware that ability in math does not necessarily imply ability in teaching, but we need to break this cycle of math-phobia by making sure the lower-grade teachers are able to teach kids reasoning skills in preparation for the subjects that use those skills.

Although one can never disagree with the thinking that trining and development is not necessary for a professional to be effective in any profession I strongly feel that this would be a waste of time and money at this time. While I do feel the quality of the Universities performing the training is sorely lacking I believe the overhaul of the educational process needs to come from the top.
Leadership preparation and training is really the element that is lacking. Again we can look at the Universities for a major portion of this problem. The rigor inovolved in a person receiving a Administrative certificate boarders on a joke. The quality of Administrator's is critical to improving educational quality. You can improve the quality of the teacher but until you have true leaders in the Administrative positions that allow the educator's to do what they learn it will be for naught.

To think that just more money is an incentive to draw skilled teachers to inner city schools is ridiculous.
Teachers are drawn to environments where respect for them is evident and where parent/teacher collaboration is the norm rather than the exception.
What ever happened to the notion that a skilled teacher working within a rich curriculum lets the parent and student know if they have attained the skills to move along in their educational process?
Teachers competent to build the necessary core skills and collaboration with other teachers and the parents is mandatory to a successful school not to mention electives that meet the demands of both the students and their future employers is a plus.
Help a student find pride in achievement in school and I'll show you a system where respect exists for everyone involved.

Before we rush to impose another federal one-size-fits-all requirement on our schools, let's consider this country's boarding schools. Their teachers usually do not have any teaching certificates, they aren't required to take courses in pedagogy, their only academic requirement is a genuine love for the field in which they teach and an interest in communicating that excitement to their students. Their compentency isn't measured on any Praxis exam, but instead by demonstrating original research, a zeal for pursuing new knowledge, and a love of working with young people. By the way, these teachers make far less money than their public school colleagues, have no job protection, are usually required to coach extracurricular activies without extra compensation, and have to deal with far more involved / demanding parents.

The issue of legislating teacher quality wouldn't even be an issue if parents got to choose the schools and teachers that worked with their children. Parents are smart enough to decide what's best for their children. Why can't schools be free to set their own standards and personnel, and parents be free to choose a school that matches their own values? In this way, teachers, parents, and children would all win.

There needs to be a national policy on teacher quality to protect children. To the previous comment, professionals in the field know better than parents what's best for their own children. Uncomfortable to say, but true. Would you trust a parent or a doctor to diagnose a child's illness?

To Paula B. --- Diagnosis is not the problem. If it were standardized tests would cure everything.
It takes someone to recognize the symptoms that need a diagnosis.
Teachers and parents working together achieve this type of result.
Why is it that doctors are only practicing their trade?
Prostate cancer has been with us for decades and doctors have no solution for prevention.
Teachers, really good teachers, provide solutions on a daily basis. And parents, caring parents, who respect those teachers utilize that input to benefit their children.
There is no one size fits all because we don't have a national curriculum and our socio-economic conditions vary radically from region to region.
A doctor will never see a child unless a parent takes the overt action to bring the child to the doctor.

Paula,
2 years ago my daughter fell and knocked her tooth visibly out of place. The dentist said her tooth was fine. I lived with my daughter's excruciating pain for the following weeks. I took her back to the dentist, and the dentist again told us that her tooth was fine. When I took her to the dentist a third time, an abscess had appeared on her gum above the injured tooth. The dentist finally conceeded that my daughter's tooth was, in fact, NOT FINE. They recommended a root canal (front tooth of a then 4 year old child). A more competent dentist recommended that we skip the root canal and extract the tooth, and backed the recommendation with sensible medical reasoning.

Moral of the story - as a parent, I *NEVER* assume that anyone, doctor, teacher, administrator, or otherwise, knows better than I do what's best for my own children. If they seem competent, reasonable, and honest, I will weigh their input accordingly. I have seen teachers do greater damage than our ex-dentist.

I'll say it again, why can't teachers and schools set their own academic standards and personnel criteria, and parents be free to choose a school that best meets their own values and the needs of individual children? (Yes, I'm talking about school choice.)

Do we think middle and working class parents are so incompetent they can't make decisions on their own? If not, then why do we insist on keeping control of education centralized? Why don't we trust individual families?

State standards, even county standards, are just as suffucating as national requirements in that they don't treat each child as a unique individual with distinct interests and needs. We are following a one-size-fits-all system that doesn't work.

One thing I would like to add to this conversation, and which is a big gap I think in what is otherwise very helpful, is that a good school is a community of educators with a very wide and diverse skill set, not a group of great but all the same teachers. Learners have so many needs that no one could possibly 'certify' an educator to be competent in them all. Whoever hires the teachers in a school is always going to be looking for missing links - someone with the skills our community lacks - not another person just like the others. Children need this wide variety, because they are also a community of individuals with their own skill sets and needs.
I realize how difficult it is even for us teachers to see how hard teaching is and how hard to reduce it to any easy Darling-type competencies, but this is why we have chosen this profession. It is always challenging, never easy to pin down, and thrilling when we're successful.
I have always felt that administrators must take the blame or responsibility for keeping on poor teachers and for not adequately supporting the others to get better and better and adapt to new conditions and new kids. Meanwhile, their greatest contribution is to create a community of educators which works for the children in that school.

To Jay: Your choice model (letting all schools set their own academic standards and letting parents choose)overlooks one key element, which is providing parents with the criteria that they need to make informed choices. Consider the amount of nutrition information that is mandated on the back of a peanut butter jar (and that wise parents read, along with the price and consideration of taste, texture, etc) in order to allow some apples to apples comparison (speaking of which--it took some federal intervention to ensure that baby food companies were actually peddling apple juice in the apple juice bottles). The federal government even sets minimum standards for what can be labeled "peanut butter," rather than peanut spread, peanut food, nut butter, nut spread, imitation nut food, etc, etc.

Without some common standards, the choice market can become overrun with scoundrels peddling snake oil in education barrels.

Virtually all these issues are addressed in "Tough Choices or Tough Times." Many of Dr.Darling-Hammond's suggestions are reflected in this report. This blue ribbon committee is suggesting some really radical changes in teacher preparation--some really exciting stuff!

How interesting it would be if educators actually needed to meet the standards that their students needed to meet. Too often young educators to not have the content knowledge that is necessary to teach and to be effective. We cannot just open a book the night before our classes and learn the material that is to be presented. I would like to see intelligent, knowing, enthusiastic adults leading the children of the United States to academic victory. What if we labeled educators as we do children? Highly qualified is a term we use in education, but I do not see the term always matching the educator.

Can you imagine trying to list the variables that affect student success? To address just a few, school funding and by default, local control, of schools was an excellent idea – for the industrial revolution and an agrarian society. Today it results in enormous disparities between the wealthy and the poor districts. State funding should go to districts not on an equal basis, but an equitable basis. That is, where it is most needed.

Teacher preparation is, indeed, inadequate. Doctors and lawyers do not take four years and then a semester of student practice before beginning their professional careers. Neither should teachers. Certification should be granted only after postgraduate specialization with more than a year of internships. Additionally, if we want the best in our classrooms, there should be a test like the LSAT or the MSAT before we allow the candidates to waste their money and valuable classroom space. This should be followed by a most rigorous bar type exam before certification. There should also be a nationwide mandatory certification for middle level certification. Not just one middle-level course in a primary or secondary certification like some states.

The above does not even begin to address other variables related to poverty and hunger, nor mental illness in children, for which virtually no one is prepared. The list goes on. What is it that our Department of Education does?

The lead-in comment, about teachers who can't pass the standards that the students need to pass, is so incredibly unfair. And it didn't prompt a single rude reply ...

I have a doctorate and I was a published social scientist when I began teaching in a inner city school 15 years ago. Next year, I'll be our most experienced teacher. I've stuck it out for my own quirky reasons (basically because I don't have kids of my own.) But we have a system that depends on the zeal of missionaries, and almost all of my great colleagues have burned themselves out.

My very best co-workers are plenty smart, but they have very little knowledge of standards. I don't know how you mass produce educators with the heart and the street smarts to survive over the years.

The biggest problem, of course, is discipline. Workshops on classroom management may help some. But given the lack of disciplinary backing, only a small percentage of teachers will develop the personality and the "art" of handling so many traumatized children.

I certainly agree that good teachers are the key to student achievement. Nevertheless, we will never attract a high quality teacher pool without improving salaries, which have increased only 2% in real dollars in the past ten years. To accomplish a major improvement in teachers salaries, the national policy should include a federal income tax exemption for all classroom public school teachers. Under this plan,
benefit the average U.S. teacher would receive would amount to $6,873. If states reciprocated with state tax exemptions, we could substantially improve salaries for teachers, which would dramatically improve the pool of quality teachers.

As a brand-spanking new teacher in a Title 1 school I can attest to one major issue up-front-and-personal, an issue I do not see in this forum: societal ills.

I was appalled to discover that teaching is no longer delivering badly-needed, "keep-America-competitive" curriculum to our youth. It has become the task of a teacher to RAISE these kids to be responsible, caring, empathetic and intelligent adults, capable of taking on the challenges our world now - and will continue to - face.

I ask only one question: where did the responsibility of the parents go? Like by age two, making it clear to their pre-schooler it is NOT OK to strike another student or talk back to the teacher. Or how 'bout stealing is NOT OK simply because someone has something you want? Or it's not OK to direct vulgar language at an official because you don't like how they 'talked' to you? ....Or to break the law, get hooked on drugs or find yourself facing eviction because you decided not to act responsibly? Where are the parents in setting these crucial examples for the kids we are tasked to grow educationally?

If I sound frustrated about this you would be correct. Teachers who stay will need to develop the skills of a police officer, social worker and psychologist. No amount of staff development lacking the above will truly prepare the best-intended and knowledgeable to create student achievement without the ability to take on the ROLE of surrogate parent in our schools.

Those unwilling to accept this reality will leave. Not until those in charge decide to put the onus of responsibility on the parents to set the groundwork for character in these kids will teachers get the respect they deserve and there will be change for the better in education as a whole. Teachers should NEVER have been forced to take on this role. Never.

For the record, I'm staying. For the simple reason that I'm not a quitter. I am, however, a realist. There's nothning logical about the state of education today. Nothing. And until a huge dose of it gets put back into education, we will continue to run around like a mouse in a maze.

For what it's worth from someone just coming into this...

The requirements under NCLB for "highly qualified status" remain questionable at best. Although we have many, many excellent teachers in Alaska teaching in the content area they were trained for, we have many who take the Praxis, pass it in a content area for which they have no training, and then teach. I doubt that was the intent of the law makers or educators who crafted the NCLB wording. Why go to college if you can take a single test on a single day, pass it and get hired as a "highly qualified" teacher. If we are doing it here, educators are probably doing it everywhere!

I agree with John; quality teaching has a whole lot more to do with heart than increasing the amount of "book knowledge" that a teacher has. I have worked with "highly qualified" teachers that clock out every day at 3:00 and go home to have "family time". I have also worked with gifted teachers who work til the wee hours and have little time left over for themselves, let alone taking more classes. I'll put my children with the second teacher every time. If they don't know the answer they'll find it (and teach the student to do the same) and that is the teacher that will know my child inside and out and care about every part of them.

As a second note, to the discussion about parents knowing what is best for their children. That is true to a point. I work largely in decile 1 schools. We are the lowest poverty level and the average education of the parents is eighth grade. A large proportion of the parents are non-working and or drug/alcohol addicted. Trust me, many of our students would receive no education at all if it was not mandated by the government. At best they would send their children to school to get them out of the house. These families need someone telling them when and where to send their children for an education.

What Darling-Hammond proposes is, in reality, just another politically expedient band-aid. Of course the classrooms need well-prepared teachers. That is a given. However, this is but a single variable that affects the academic success of our students. Would a national standard result in teachers who are better prepared to educate all children? If we are truly committed to improving education in this country, the national education system needs a complete overhaul, from the top down. The Department of Education must stop with the single focus politically motivated (and unfunded) mandates and begin by encouraging and funding studies of the multiiple variables that affect academic success. Only then we can begin to address issues that can make a difference. For example, what are the effects of poverty; of local school funding; of publishers who create materials that they will market primarily to states where the state board approves and controls all materials. The list and the complexity of interactions are overwhelming.
As a retired middle school teacher, I now teach education classes at a midwestern university and I completely agree that teacher preparation often leaves quite a bit to be desired. One suggestion would be to require a graduate degree for certification as they do in Canada. We think of ourselves as professionals, but would anyone trust a lawyer or physician who received a professional degree in an undergraduate program? A semester of student teaching is just not enough exposure to prepare one to become a professional educator. And ask any teachers whether their teacher prep classes were of practical value the first time they stepped into a classroom. Pre-ed undergraduate majors and certification in graduate programs will not solve the problem any more than any other single solution, but may be a practical example of how to achieve professional educators without mandating vague mandates. Let’s be realistic. Expecting our politicians mandate a national standard would be no more successful that expecting improved performance by mandating more testing.

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