Top teachers trump standards

Standards and tests won’t improve American public education, argues Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita at the University of Arkansas and an author of Massachusetts’ standards. Policymakers should focus on improving teacher quality and training and the K-12 curriculum, she writes.

The U.S. Department of Education (USED) and its narrow circle of Gates Foundation-funded or Gates Foundation-employed advisers . . . have spent their initial energies on first getting states to adopt the kind of standards they think low-achieving students can meet to be declared “college-ready” (i.e., generic, content-light skills in the English language arts); and then, on arguing with teacher unions about the percentage of students’ test scores for which teachers and administrators should be held accountable.

Only one characteristic of an effective teacher — subject-matter knowledge — is related to student achievement, according to the 2008 final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, writes Stotsky.  “The more academically competent the teacher is, the more students learn.”

In high-achieving school systems, only the very best students can gain admittance to teacher training programs, she writes. Training is far more rigorous than in the U.S.

In Finland, prospective elementary teachers complete a three-year bachelor’s and a two-year master’s in education. Prospective secondary teachers usually complete a three-year degree and a two-year master’s in their subject, followed by a two-year master’s program in education. In both cases, the master’s focuses on educational research.

An academically stronger corps of educators is more likely to establish and teach an academically stronger curriculum, do better designed research, and make more soundly based educational policy.

Stotsky lists seven things states could do to improve teacher quality. It starts with restricting admission to teacher training to the top 10 to 15 percent of students.

Would the brightest students compete for a chance to teach? The career would be more prestigious if it was reserved for top students. But . . . I have my doubts.

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  1. In comparison with Finland there is the question of alternatives to teaching for really bright people in the Finnish economy. I don’t know very much about the Finnish economy. Maybe top Finnish students don’t have as many alternatives to a career in primary and secondary education compared to the US.

    • SuperSub says:

      I don’t think its an issue of a lack of alternatives but of the prestige tied to the teaching profession.. Finland has a thriving tech and natural resources industry, so there are definitely well-paid careers to compete with teaching.
      What I think might be occurring is that the prestige and compensation for teaching is allowing it to compete against the “mid-level” professions – accountants, attorneys, technicians, bureaucrats… fields that draw a lot of the more capable graduates.

  2. I doubt the brightest students would compete for the chance to teach. In today’s classroom, that means they must ignore their own bright students and concentrate on the low performers. Some may have that type of conscience, that they would do it for the money and the days off, but many won’t.

    • SuperSub says:

      Are you discussing the classroom environment here in the US or Finland?
      I’m reminded of a few teachers I know who work at elite US private schools… their pay is actually lower than an average public school teacher in the second half of their career. They like the respect they are given by their students, their administrators, the parents, and by public school colleagues.
      I’ve always wondered about the effects on teacher quality if US public schools adopted a flat pay scale near the current average. $45,000 (adjusting for local cost of living) right out of school would seem pretty good for a capable college student.
      Does anyone know if Finland and the other ‘elite’ nations use a graduated-by-seniority or flat compensation scheme?

  3. SC Math Teacher says:

    The Ed schools can do their part by eliminating the relentless focus on the holy trinity of progressivism — race, class, gender — that pervades the curriculum.

  4. 45k is under the salary for a beginning teacher in my area of rural NY. I doubt quality would increase increase or decrease if the salary was dropped a bit…many dual income couples where one is teaching to provide bennies for the other…not likely they would find another job in the area, aside from corrections, that has the bennies they seek as well as the short work week.

  5. anonymous says:

    In many countries with high achieving school systems, a much smaller proportion of students go on to 4 or 5 year university programs.

    It’s not that teaching has prestige or pay to attract the best university entrants, it’s that even the bottom of the pool is the top 15-20% of high school grads (~17% in Sweden, don’t know Finland).

    Another factor in teaching quality is the extent to which alternative careers are open to women. It’s not necessarily a good thing to have awesome teachers who might, except for their sex, have been research scientists, or judges, or entrepreneurs.

  6. why would the top college students go into education? Teachers are blamed for everything. Scores are low? Has to be the teacher. No Ione talks about home life, socioeconomic status, or the student’s own responsibilities.

    Why go into a job with zero job security now? States are trying to end tenure. Sure, people say every career doesn’t have job security, but teachers don’t get the pay of the private sector or the bonuses or the severance packages. If a person moves from one job to a similar one somewhere else, the pay will be very similar. If a teacher moves to another district, the new district won’t take all the years for pay, at most 7.

    So tell me why the top would go into teaching?

  7. Roger Sweeny says:

    Why would the top go into teaching? Partly because they are comfortable in school settings. Many will also have picked up from their teachers and professors that just about the best, most moral, most useful thing a person can do is go into teaching.

    The job is remarkably secure. States may well increase the time it takes to get tenure, may make it easier to fire teachers with tenure, may even purport to get rid of tenure altogether, but it will largely survive. (Every school system will have some sort of probationary/permanent distinction, perhaps a 3 step probationary/initial/permanent ladder.) In most places, the benefits and pension compare favorably with the private sector.

    But there is a real question whether getting more “top college students” into K-12 teaching will help most students. Studies have not been able to find much improvement in student performance. And why should they? Top students, almost by definition, are people for whom school came easy, people who liked school and worked at it. Most of their students will NOT be that way. What worked for them will not work for their students. After a few years, this will become brutally obvious. If lots of top college students have been lured into teaching, most of them will leave at this point.

  8. Mark Roulo says:

    Top students, almost by definition, are people for whom school came easy, people who liked school and worked at it. Most of their students will NOT be that way. What worked for them will not work for their students.

    “What worked for them will not work for their students.”
    In theory, Ed School would help a lot with this. In theory.

  9. No one seems to pay attention what a huge difference in demographics exists between the US and any of the educationally “superior” countries. If we look at Finland for example – it is very homogeneous culturally, ethnically, religiously, linguistically, etc. Every child relates to every teacher, every teacher feels what life is like of every child. It allows Finns to focus on education proper, as opposed to trying to close all sorts of achievement gaps, which of course could only be done by eliminating achievements altogether.
    I do not believe any recipes from demographically homogeneous country will work for the US.

    • Finland is not linguistically homogeneous. It has two main languages, Finnish and Swedish. It is important to note that these languages are not closely related like English and Spanish are.

      Sweden is much more culturally homogeneous than either Finland or the US, and the US does better on international tests than Sweden. If being culturally homogeneous were truly such a plus, then Sweden should be surpassing the United States on international tests.

      • From wiki:
        Finnish is the main language of 91% of the population;
        Swedish is the main language of 5.4% of the population;
        Both national languages are compulsory subjects in school (except for children with a third language as their native language) and a language test is a prerequisite for governmental offices where a university degree is required.

        And speaking of Sweden – it was consistently way ahead of the US for decades until – you got it – Swedes attempted the reform, which almost predictably failed. An old lesson from engineering – do not try to fix what isn’t broken.