Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Bread and Circus
On the way home from the gym last night, I read what struck me as a pretty important "think piece" in Democracy Journal: "America's Teaching Crisis." The article pithily details one of the biggest problems in public education: how we recruit, train and compensate our teachers. It makes a crucially important and uncontestable point that, frankly, I'm a little embarrassed I hadn't thought of previously: through the 1970s, teaching (like nursing, where I was aware of this factor) had a big competitive human capital advantage just by the fact that the full range of career options weren't open to women and, to a somewhat lesser extent, non-white men, so people of talent and ambition were more likely to go into the field. Because of this advantage, there was less need to aggressively recruit or robustly compensate great educators.

(My mom was one of those people. Had she been born even 15 years later, I think she would have gone into the law or academia; as it was, she became a teacher. It was her students' gain, but similarly talented people are now far less likely to enter the profession.)

I don't know if it's possible to show that aggregate teacher quality has declined in recent decades, but at the least, the article suggests that today's teaching workforce is not replete with the sort of inspirational, mind-opening instructors we all wish for:

If the principal objective of a teacher-preparation program is to develop highly effective educators, then it ought to select its students with attention to the characteristics that correlate with effectiveness in the classroom. One such broadly recognized characteristic is the level of a prospective teacher’s "literacy"–not merely an individual’s ability to read, but rather one’s "world knowledge," general academic proficiency, and ability to communicate. To be sure, this broadly defined literacy does not, by itself, guarantee effective teaching, but it is, on average, very much related to success in the classroom. Multiple studies examining different proxies for literacy have shown that educators who are considered "highly literate" consistently produce student achievement that outpaces that of their "less literate" peers, sometimes by more than a third of a grade level per year. One study of Philadelphia students suggests that this effect may be greatest for low-income and minority students. Summarizing the evidence, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), of which we are both members, reports that, "clearly a prospective teacher’s level of literacy, however measured, should be a primary consideration in the hiring process."

Despite this evidence, many schools of education do not select their students with an aggressive eye toward this broadly defined literacy. For example, one study of the graduates of the State University of New York system found that, on standardized aptitude tests, elementary and secondary teachers were more likely to score on the lower end of the distribution than their non-teaching peers, and less likely to score at the higher end. National data reflect the same trends: Fewer than 7 percent of public school teachers, for instance, graduated from "selective" colleges. Of course, test scores and college selectivity are not the only indicators of effective teaching; a range of factors leads to excellence in the classroom. However, research suggests that there is a real connection between effectiveness in the classroom and "literacy" that could be more fully addressed in how current teacher preparation programs select candidates.

I suspect that part of this is bound up in the problem that so many of the "best and brightest" teachers leave in frustration after a couple years on the job. The attrition rate for NYC schoolteachers is something like 50 percent within their first three years, and many of those who don't leave the profession entirely relocate out of higher-stress assignments with lower-achieving kids and inadequate resources to easier and better-paid postings in the suburbs. It is hardly an overstatement to say that the needier the students, the worse teachers they are likely to have.

My personal conceit about how to reform the teaching profession has been that it needs to become a true "profession," with high standards for entry and competence and lucrative compensation like medicine or the law. The article, however, swats aside this premise and offers a different prescription:

Some commonly proposed ideas to improve the quality of teaching in our schools are well intentioned, but untenable when scaled to the enormity of the challenge. Substantial across-the-board raises for teachers, for example, make great political rhetoric but would require extraordinary tax increases that the public is unlikely to accept. Moreover, across-the-board raises will not create the right incentives to bring high-quality people to work in the districts and to teach the subjects that need them the most.

Similarly, the notion of making education more like law or medicine–with a large body of canonical knowledge for all practitioners and the expectations of a lifetime career–makes for great talking points but ignores key differences between these professions. What’s more, many talented young people today are not looking for static careers spanning 30 years in a singular profession. The labor market is more mobile and dynamic than it was a generation ago, and public schools should embrace and exploit this trend in a search for talent, rather than resist it.

Instead, the nation needs a New Deal for teachers and the nation’s school children. Such an effort would involve more (and smarter) pay, better training and support, and increased opportunities for professional growth. It would also allow more people to come into education at different points in their careers, and it would structure the incentives to more effectively promote the goals of student achievement and educational equity. It would also involve more responsibility–namely more accountability for job performance in the service of our children.

It goes on to urge "raising the bar" for admission into the profession, which I think is a needed step but might not work unless the rewards rise ahead of professional expectations. A better recommendation is to develop a "market-based" system for teachers to pursue their own professional development, arming them with vouchers to get higher education institutions to compete for their business. Done right, this could lower turnover and boost teacher quality. Finally, the authors urge significant change in how teachers are evaluated and, ultimately, compensated. This strikes me as a nearly uncontestable point.

Public education is the foundation stone of both American democracy and American economic competitiveness. With the arguable exception of climate change, there's no issue that's more important for our national well-being over the long term. The ideas raised in this piece are serious and worthy of an extended "national conversation" involving not just politicians and experts (or even policy wonks who focus in other areas but find this stuff really compelling), but parents and students--particularly those stuck in failing schools and floundering districts.

Instead, though, we've got coverage of David Vitter and his ho (or ho's); the media's ongoing John McCain Political Deathwatch; and on and on it goes.

I don't know how to make "issues" interesting to the general public. But until someone figures this out, we're going to be forever watching parades pass by while the neighborhood burns down.

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