How Can We Ensure that Kids Have Great Teachers?

One of the aspects of our public school system that comes under fire time and again is the quality of the teaching. Most people, both politicians and citizens alike, believe that a great teacher makes a huge difference in the lives of his or her students. That’s why the Department of Education requires all states to submit a plan to “Ensure Equitable Access to Excellent Educators.” As I’ve written before, though, we can’t seem to agree on the characteristics that define excellence in teaching. How can we measure that which is clearly a subjective activity? The core problem stems from the fact that we have no accepted teacher preparation program or standards.

For many professions, a career path is clear. If you want to be a doctor, for example, you need to go to college, take the MCAT, complete medical school and a residency, and then pass medical boards. A budding lawyer has to take the LSATs, attend law school, and pass the state bar exam. Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) must have a bachelor’s degree, pass a state licensure exam, and in most states, complete 150 additional hours of education. To become a Professional Engineer (PE), candidates must earn their degree from an accredited institution, pass the FE exam, work for at least 4 years, and then pass the PE exam in a chosen discipline. If you want to be a teacher, on the other hand, the journey also depends on the state (and sometimes on the district!); however, requirements vary so widely, it is almost impossible for teachers to move from one state to another. According to an evaluation of teacher preparation programs, the United States currently has over 600 different licensure tests and procedures for teachers. Not only does each state choose its own testing procedures, but also each state can choose its own minimum requirements for passing. Surprisingly, the majority of the states using the Praxis exam (47 plus the DOD and the US Virgin Islands) require that teachers only score at or above the 16th percentile, enabling almost every candidate to achieve a passing score.

Even though most states seem to agree on the minimum requirements for a passing score on the Praxis, the huge variance in teacher preparation procedures means that teachers cannot easily practice in other states or districts. While we recognize a doctor’s credentials even if he joins the staff of a hospital in another state, and lawyers can easily become licensed in other states by taking their bar exams, it is very difficult for teachers to become certified in other states. Teachers who move often have to repeat college-level courses (at their own expense) and retake exams; in addition, if they are hired, it is usually provisionally for the first year or two, regardless of their prior experience. The only exception to this is National Board Certification: if a teacher goes through the rigorous process of becoming certified, he or she is generally able to teach in any state. As of January 2013, there were over 100,000 National Board Certified teachers; unfortunately, this number represents only 2.7% of the 3.7 million teachers nationwide.

The problem of teacher preparation and low standards is a pressing one; on Thanksgiving morning, a notable podcast brought together four education and economics experts for a panel discussion titled, “Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?” David Levin, founder of the KIPP program (a nationwide network of public charter schools), states, “The way we train teachers is fundamentally broken in this country.” Amanda Ripley, journalist and author of the book The Smartest Kids in the World, believes that teacher preparation is at the heart of a quality education. In her book, she followed three students as they studied abroad in Finland, South Korea, and Poland. While there were differences (and pros and cons) in all three countries’ educational practices, the commonality was that all three have well-trained teachers and a rigorous curriculum. In a recent blog post, Ms. Ripley states, “The next frontier is to help teachers develop their craft in a scientific, replicable way…. teachers should not be left to reinvent the science of teaching each morning.”

The lack of national standards, the lack of reciprocity among states, and the low pay for teachers are all combining with increased teacher expectations to make it difficult for some states with teaching shortages to hire qualified teachers. In Arizona this fall, a teacher shortage forced one superintendent to hire eleven applicants from the Philippines to teach in his small district. Statewide, there were over 500 openings in Arizona at the beginning of October; school officials said that many certified teachers are leaving the profession for better paying jobs or because they can no longer abide by the stress of increased assessments and record-keeping. Because of the lack of applicants from within the state and from neighboring states, officials are turning to international applicants instead.

If we truly believe that great teachers are one of the keys to improving our educational system, then we must make changes in the way we train, attract, and retain qualified educators. A report recently published by Third Way, a Washington, DC-based think tank, offered some steps we could take as a nation toward improvement. The authors suggest a three-part solution: 1) require a more stringent, streamlined licensure process that includes both a knowledge exam and a performance-based classroom assessment; 2) raise standards to make licensure more rigorous and meaningful; and 3) have a common application for interstate licensure, to make it easier for teachers to transfer credentials within the US. I would add a fourth, but equally important step to this equation: as we raise the bar for teacher certification, we must simultaneously raise salaries. In this country, earnings are correlated with respect; if we need better teachers, then we must be prepared to give them the salaries and respect they deserve.

This post was originally published at GoLocalProv.

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