Thoughts on Needing More “Excellent Teachers” and Lake Woebegone Punditry

Recently, NY Times columnist Eduardo Porter wrote this about U.S. K-12 education (boldface mine):

But that won’t overcome perhaps the greatest shortcoming in the United States compared with top performers like Canada, Finland and Singapore: a dearth of excellent teachers.

Schools of education must prepare teachers “to teach what the state expects students to learn,” the O.E.C.D. report said. Admissions standards at institutions that prepare teachers must be “high enough to attract the kinds of people who will be needed,” and the programs at these institutions must be “designed to attract young people who could choose to be doctors and architects and engineers.”

While this will most likely require higher salaries for teachers, it needn’t cost more in the end. The O.E.C.D. acknowledged that it is probably cheaper to hire American teachers often “recruited from the lower-performing segment of high school graduates in relatively low-status teacher-education institutions.” But a substantial share of the teachers who enter the system are gone after five years, and many higher-priced specialists are needed to assist the average classroom teacher.

In other countries, classroom teachers are paid more, but such salaries allow those countries to recruit more competitively and train candidates in higher-status institutions. Those teachers stay in teaching longer, need to be replaced less frequently and require much less specialized assistance in the classroom.

I’m all for paying teachers more, but I’ve never understood the whole ‘higher quality applicants’ argument. First of all, simply to replace the teachers who retire every year, we need to hire at least 300,000 new teachers annually (never mind if you want to decrease class sizes), while across all subjects, U.S. colleges graduate 1.8 million students with four year bachelor’s degrees. Already, one in six graduates will wind up teaching. What percentage of the top fifteen percent should go into teaching? All of them? If not all of the ‘best of the best’, which students deserve to have the best graduates (have fun answering that one)? And if bidness people are to be believed, they need smart people too. Every sector can’t have the top percentiles (it doesn’t work that way…).

At the same time, there’s a ‘comparative biology’ problem: a state like Massachusetts does as well or better than Blessed Finland (on the TIMSS test, black students do as well as Finns as a whole, and white Massachusetts students crush Finland). Massachusetts also does substantially better across the board than Alabama, and does a much better job educating black students than New Jersey does (though NJ and MA educate whites equally well). When you look at various teacher workforce statistics, nothing really seems to jump out in terms of teacher characteristics (though I won’t pretend this is a rigorous assessment on my part). Are these differences due to teacher quality?

It’s also not clear that K-12 education, especially the lower grades, requires those who score the highest on various tests: seventh grade algebra just isn’t that hard. There are lots of other attributes that are needed. If you’re in academia, ask yourself how many of your colleagues would last one week in front of multiple classes of eighth graders. So if we’re defining the ‘best’, it’s not even clear how to do so.

‘Teacher quality’ seems to be one of those concepts everyone praises yet no one really thinks about operationally. There might be a reason for that.

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3 Responses to Thoughts on Needing More “Excellent Teachers” and Lake Woebegone Punditry

  1. anthrosciguy says:

    They never seem to be fighting to pay teachers more either. Maybe the excellent pay comes later, after they take the jobs and teach for awhile.

  2. joemac53 says:

    I never made a lot of money as a teacher and worked various jobs every summer. That was my expectation going in. I got to buy a cheap house, raise three kids with the help of a saintly wife, and help them get through college. I was mostly content, except that I drove the crappiest trucks imaginable and had to fix them myself. Now retired from teaching, I continue to work. No complaints.

  3. Pingback: One Quick Thought About “Teacher Quality”: What Do Want Teachers to Do? | Mike the Mad Biologist

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