Why Can’t We Raise Academic Requirements for K-12 Teachers?

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/06/11/why-cant-we-raise-academic-requirements-for-k-12-teachers/

There is one good reason that the most recent review of research on teacher professional development in mathematics in the USA almost uniformly finds it ineffective:  It doesn’t lead to student gains. The majority of our K-12 teachers were in the bottom third of their academic cohort in college, particularly those who became pre-school and elementary teachers, and they were typically not high achievers in high school, either. This does not describe teachers in high-achieving countries. Does it matter?

For example, Finland draws all its pre-college teachers from academic high schools (grades 10 to 12) — schools that voluntarily enroll less than 50 percent of their school-age population after grade 9 — and from the top 20 percent of those who graduate from them. In an intensely competitive environment, Finland also admits only a small number of the top graduates who apply to its teacher preparation programs, all of which have been located at their universities since 1970. To judge from the 2011 book Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg, a noted Finnish educator, professional development for Finnish teachers was apparently not a major focus of Finland’s early education reforms. Rigorous teacher selection was. And, in 2000, Finland startled itself and the rest of the world with the highest score on an international test. (It’s called Program in Student Assessment, or PISA.)

It is unlikely that any country would spend the amount of money on required professional development for its teaching corps that the USA does unless it, too, perceived them as grossly academically and pedagogically inadequate (raising other questions).  But given that most American teachers must by law in most if not all states be college graduates and recommended for licensure by an accredited preparation program or a state agency, one must wonder why state policy makers who have voted for these other requirements also require so much professional development (i.e., backloading) for current teachers in place of other, possibly more rational, policies (i.e., frontloading) for prospective teachers.

But instead of strengthening the criteria for accreditation of teacher preparation programs used by private or public agencies, or the tests that prospective teachers take for licensure, which have long been judged as mostly pitched to middle or high school level in academic demand, we require something we euphemistically call professional development.

In 2007, I traced the 60-year history of the decline in the academic demands of the undergraduate education of prospective teachers in the Arts and Sciences. At the same time that academic or content courses were declining in demand, the requirements of undergraduate (or post-baccalaureate) programs for teacher preparation (usually in an education school) were increasing to address the various social, cultural, and linguistic issues that education faculty saw as necessary for pre-service teachers — resulting in a typical training program whose content Arthur Levine described as “unruly and chaotic” in “Educating School Teachers” — a highly critical report on teacher education released in 2006.

After visiting or conducting surveys in hundreds of institutions across the country, the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, and his research staff concluded that most teacher training programs suffered from low standards, out-of-touch faculty, and poor quality control.

A chart on page 23 of a 2010 McKinsey report provides ample descriptive information on the relatively low academic background of teachers in the USA. The title of the report gives the punch line away:  Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and Retaining Top-Third Graduates to Careers in Teaching. And the often-enormous differences in academic aptitude between undergraduates who major in education in the USA and those with other undergraduate majors have been confirmed in other reports, e.g., a report by Cory Koedel for the American Enterprise Institute in 2011 on grade inflation in education coursework.

As Jonathan Wai’s 2015 article notes, education majors consistently have had the lowest academic aptitude on five independent tests from 1946 to 2014.  As he concludes:

“These data show that U.S. students who choose to major in education, essentially the bulk of people who become teachers, have for at least the last seven decades been selected from students at the lower end of the academic aptitude pool.”

The huge rise, called a “staffing surge,” in non-teaching personnel in K-8 in the USA after 1950, seems to support the conclusions of the Levine report. The “surge” may also be viewed as attempted compensation for the increasingly lower academic quality of early childhood teachers (pre-kindergarten and kindergarten), elementary teachers (1-6), and of subject teachers in upper elementary and middle schools. (The decline in the academic background of high school teachers is more difficult to document because most of their courses are in the Arts and Sciences, and little information is available on changes in the content of their majors.)

According to EdChoice’s 2017 report, the increase in the ratio of non-teaching personnel to teachers of record in K-8 from 1950 to 2015 cannot be justified on the grounds of student academic gains or increased student enrollment. The costs, mostly to local school districts, are enormous, and there is still little or no evidence of student gains from National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests to support the hiring of an ever-increasing number of reading and mathematics “coaches,” “mathematics specialists,” and classroom aides (“paraprofessionals”), in addition to other education-related personnel, to train, supervise, or assist the classroom teacher. As EdChoice asserts: the staffing surge… “has not led to measurable academic benefits for American public school students” (page 2).

Moreover, because of the reporting categories used on federal and state forms, it is not possible to tease out the exact number of these added employees who were hired to help classroom teachers to increase students’ academic achievement but whose own mastery of the math (and reading) content in the K-8 curriculum is questionable. As noted by a 2008 Task Group on Teachers and Teacher Education:  “In terms of content knowledge, the criteria that should be used for the certification of these [math] specialists remain unknown.”

It is understandable why federal, state, and local education policy makers may have concluded that academically weak teachers need to know more about the subject(s) they teach and/or the pedagogy for teaching those subjects. But it is not understandable why they have not concluded that academically weak high school or college students should not be admitted to teacher preparation programs, to begin with. As that 2008 Task Group report found in the high-quality research it reviewed, teachers’ knowledge of the subject(s) they teach is the only characteristic of “effective” teachers researchers have found.


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.