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Teacher quality critical to education reform


Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and President George W. Bush recently were pictured on the front pages of newspapers smiling, shaking hands and congratulating each other on the passage of the Education Bill. Republicans and Democrats both have concentrated on education as an important issue with the voters, and many people have considered the quality of education to be the most important domestic issue facing our country. The Kennedy-Bush mutual congratulations may be premature. If the cause of a problem is not properly identified, the solution will be ineffective -- and the cause has not been properly identified.

Why are the educational results of our schools, especially inner-city schools, so disappointing? A study led by Dr. William Sanders of the University of Tennessee and reported in January 2000 in The New York Times offers some startling data on the subject. The research investigates annually the factors in poor school outcomes around the state of Tennessee. The analysis, now mandated by the state, has statistics dating back to 1992 -- 6 million student records and evaluations of more than 30,000 teachers. The research examines class size, the location of the school (urban, suburban, rural), per-pupil expenditure, ethnic make-up, percentage of children eligible for free and reduced-cost lunches, the heterogeneous or homogeneous makeup of the school and the quality of the teachers. The study is discovering that by far the quality of the teachers is the most significant factor. Teacher effectiveness is 10 to 20 times as significant as other factors.

The study traced individual children through sequences of teachers. For example, Sanders compared the progress of two children who left the second grade with the same achievement level. One child who was taught for the next three years by teachers evaluated in the top 20th percentile scored in the 96th percentile in the fifth grade math test while the other child taught by teachers evaluated in the bottom percentile scored in the 44th percentile. “Purely as luck of the draw,” Sanders told The New York Times, “the difference was huge, huge, huge.” Outside influences such as illness and parent involvement were considered as well as those mentioned above. When most students in a particular teacher’s class have a downward path after previously achieving satisfactorily, the evidence is strong that the teacher is not as effective as he or she should be.

One of the problems is that the education achievement level of people entering the teaching profession has dropped, according to state reports published in 2000. In Pennsylvania, Secretary of Education Eugene Hiskak reported that undergraduates in schools of education had only a C+ average in high school. In Massachusetts, nearly 60 percent of the prospective teachers who took the state teacher certification test flunked. The Connecticut State Department of Education reported that high school seniors planning to become teachers had an average SAT score of 973, which is 44 points below the average of all Connecticut seniors. A 1997 report by the National Center for Educational Statistics found that education majors were placed in remedial courses at higher rates than their counterparts in the humanities and social sciences. In New York state, 37 percent of the teachers and prospective teachers failed the math certification test in the 1999-2000 school year while 25 percent failed the English exam.

The problem is not only recruiting good people but retaining them. According to Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, 30 percent of all teachers and up to 50 percent of teachers in urban schools leave their jobs within five years. A study published in the International Journal of Innovative Higher Education estimated that only 30 percent of students entering four-year teaching programs complete them. Of that number only 40 percent become teachers, and only 55 percent of those are still teaching several years later. This means that less than 10 percent of those who entered a four-year teacher education program are still teaching several years after graduation.

Salaries for teachers are lower than for other professional positions. An Education Week survey showed the average starting pay of a U.S. teacher was $8,000 less than for other professionals and, at age 50, was $24,000 less. Inner-city teachers receive less than suburban teachers. Statistics show, however, that there is little correlation between salary and teaching excellence because pay scales are based on seniority rather than performance.

One cause, Vartan Gregorian says, is that we have too few good schools of education. In an article written for Education Week, Mark Green, author of The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools, agrees. The curriculum in education schools is “thin and eccentric,” he says, and he contends that liberal arts and science requirements are “often not any more extensive than those of a two-year community college.”

The Carnegie Corporation, in trying to address the problem of inadequate colleges of education, has announced the “Teachers for a New Era” project to develop excellent teacher education programs at selected colleges and universities. Methods also would be developed to evaluate the teaching success of the graduates.

Teacher effectiveness can be improved. Salaries should be increased to attract and retain better teachers. An offer of tuition loans to be forgiven after five years of teaching should be used to attract young people to the profession. Performance standards should be used as incentives to identify and reward effective teachers. Ongoing teacher training should be offered throughout the systems. Teachers who work with poorly prepared students, learning disabled students or students with behavioral problems should be offered higher pay.

The adverse consequences of poor education in this county is a national issue, not just a local issue. Efforts to improve teacher effectiveness merit federal funding. Although the costs are high, this is an investment in the future of our country and the payback is great. The GI Bill, which offered tuition and living stipends for a four-year college education for veterans of World War II, was the best investment in education this country ever made.

Economic prosperity, both for the individual and the nations, depends upon a well-educated population. It has been demonstrated that we need excellent teachers if we are to have educated people, but we are not attracting enough qualified people to the profession. The quality of teacher education is often distressingly low. Teacher retention is a discouraging problem. We seldom measure or reward excellent teachers.

The Education Bill was a step forward, but the really critical issue of too few excellent teachers has not been addressed. The Tennessee study clearly identifies teacher excellence as a basic cause of the education problem. The states and national government now should act to offer a solution.

John Caron, an emeritus member of the NCR board of directors, is a retired businessman and is engaged in promoting progress in Third World countries.

Related Web sites

Carnegie Corporation’s Teachers for a New Era

National Center for Education Statistics

U.S. Department of Education

National Catholic Reporter, March 15, 2002