The high cost of academically under-qualified teachers

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It was once a matter of common sense that teachers cannot teach what they do not know. And research supports the view that a teacher’s knowledge of his or her subject area is, so far, the best and only predictor of student achievement.

In Massachusetts, common sense guided the state department of education’s revision of the Bay State’s teacher licensing regulations and licensure tests a decade earlier.

The results, judged by the scores on reputable assessments, speak for themselves. Average scores in both reading and mathematics, for grade 4 and grade 8, on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015, were the highest or among the highest of all 50 states.

For Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the international test of curriculum-based achievement, Massachusetts entered as a separate country, tied with Singapore for first place in grade 8 science, and was among the top six countries in mathematics in grades 4 and 8 in both 2007 and 2013.

Yes, we had pre-Common Core standards for K-12 that had been judged to be among the most rigorous in the country in all major subjects. But, perhaps more important, we also had many teachers capable of teaching to these standards. Without that combination, we knew there was little chance there would be much real improvement for any group of students.

Flash forward to 2015, when US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made it quite clear that teacher preparation programs would emphasize “hands-on skills.” Nowhere does he indicate an awareness of the research on what seems to matter most in getting effective teachers.

Predictably, as it did with the state’s superior English language arts and mathematics standards, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) dumped many of the first-rate science standards that got us into a tie for first place in grade 8 science with Singapore when it voted for a revised set of science standards on Tuesday, Jan. 26.

Indeed, an external, expert reviewer of the October 2015 draft of the biology standards — biology professor Stan Metzenberg, California State University-Northridge — recommended withdrawal of these science standards from consideration. But the Board of Education followed the commissioner of education’s recommendation to adopt whatever was in the current draft on January 26 before getting the judgment of the STEM professors in the state’s private as well as public higher education institutions.

We are not talking about readiness for a high school diploma but for admission to a demanding public or private college or school of engineering — of which there are many in Massachusetts. There have always been a lot of parents in Massachusetts who have high aims for their own and others’ high-achieving children.

Science teachers at all grade levels need a solid academic background in both math and science.

But we can now be sure that the state’s licensing tests for science teachers will be reduced to reflect whatever is in the state’s current math standards.

Other countries make admission to their teacher training programs contingent upon high academic achievement, in college as well as high school.

Not in America.

Our country staffs its public schools chiefly with teachers who are in the academic bottom two-thirds of their high school or college cohort.

Indeed, according to a 2007 McKinsey report, our elementary teachers come predominantly from the bottom third.

Education policy makers in this country have justified their policy of admitting academically under-qualified students to teacher preparation programs on the grounds that the public schools should be open to a more diverse range of teaching styles than high academic requirements might allow (as if the two were incompatible).  They also assume that low-income is synonymous with low ability and have further argued that high quality teaching is more a matter of pedagogical skill than content knowledge, even though there is no research to support this self-serving position.

However, their argument does not come without huge costs to the public — a financial cost to local taxpayers who still foot most of the bills for their local schools, and an intellectual cost to the students from both the higher and lower income families in them.

But if our public schools were restricted to hiring only academically competent teachers, there would be little need for:

(1) most standardized tests (including mandated federal and state tests);

(2) many of the special online teaching tools now on the market;

(3) most classroom mathematics and literacy “coaches”;

(4) the excessive number of “curriculum specialists” or supervisors now in our schools; and

(5) education school courses on race, ethnicity, and gender — as if the physical characteristics of students (or their parents’ language) were obstacles to academic learning!

There would also be little emphasis on:

(6) “learning styles” (a notion without any research evidence to support it) or

(7) how to facilitate student “discovery” of the academic concepts or knowledge that today’s teachers no longer teach and, in many cases, cannot teach their students, or

(8) a massive redistribution of “effective” teachers based on the assumption that only a small percentage of our teaching corps is or can be “effective.”

Sadly, it seems unlikely that the Bay State’s Board of Education is willing to recognize these basic truths.

Sandra Stotsky, former Senior Associate Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education, is Professor of Education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.