What’s Really Wrong with Teacher Quality and Teacher Education?

It's time to get rid of our wrongheaded approach to evaluating teacher quality and educating professionals for the classroom.

Photo Credit: Monkey Business Images via Shutterstock.com

The last decade has included some powerful and harsh narratives about U.S. public education and its teachers: Public schools are failing, particularly in international comparisons; that failure is primarily caused by “bad” teachers and corrupt teachers’ unions; and teacher education, historically weak, does little to help correct the low quality of the teacher workforce.

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Yet, my nearly three decades in education—18 years teaching high school English in rural South Carolina and ten years in teacher education—and as an education scholar have proven to me that these narratives are essentially false or at least distortions of what is true. I have made the case that the rush to embrace charter schools fails to start with what education problem we are trying to solve, and I now want to make a similar argument about teacher quality and teacher education: Teacher quality matters and teacher education needs to be reformed, but not the ways currently being argued.

As with the charter school debate, seeking solutions to teacher quality and teacher education must start with clearly defined problems and conditions or the arguments slip into mere ideological advocacy. Free market advocates chant their mantra at union advocates, prompting union advocates to chant in reply. All the while, real problems and potential solutions are lost in argument for argument’s sake.

Real Problems, Real Solutions

If we genuinely seek to raise the quality of our teachers and teacher education, let’s start with some clear problems and conditions at the root of both.

First, I have never been able to find any evidence that teacher quality is the primary source of student success or failure, although there is some evidence (although not monolithic) that teacher quality is a powerful in-school factor correlated with student achievement.

The overwhelming conditions impacting measurable student outcomes are the characteristics of students’ lives outside of school—conventional estimates showing more than 60% and some evidence suggesting as high as 86% of student achievement linked to out-of-school factors. Therefore, in order to address the teacher quality debate effectively, we must frame that discussion in the limited context of how much teacher quality matters in the metrics we use to determine school and teacher success.

Further, the status of students’ homes and communities is powerfully linked to inequitable access to educational opportunities. While the claim that “bad” teachers protected by corrupt teachers’ unions is both misleading and effective discourse, what we must address first concerning teacher quality is that children of color, children living in poverty, bi-/multi-lingual learners, and students with special needs disproportionately sit in the worst classroom conditions available in the U.S.—including higher student/teacher ratios, un-/under-certified teachers, inexperienced teachers, and test-prep curriculum and instruction.

So what are the problems with teacher quality? We must start with two:

  • The greatest solvable problem with teacher quality is inequitable distribution of teacher quality among identifiable subgroups of students. This problem is being ignored by political leaders and the education establishment, and worst of all, commitments such as the ones to Teach for America are increasing that inequity, not correcting it.
  • The most urgent teacher quality need is better preparing pre-service and better supporting in-service teachers in their expertise and experience with working with the most time- and financial-intensive populations of students—children of color, children living in poverty, bi-/multi-lingual learners, and students with special needs.

School policy and practices could address both of these teacher quality problems and the outcomes would be positive if we also change our singular focus on measurable student outcomes (test data) and our silver-bullet mentality about change happening immediately.

Student outcomes and teacher quality should be much more than test data and change takes much more time than political and public sentiments allow.

Next, what are the problems with teacher education?

My short answer is to say, first, not what National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) is claiming. Part of the problem with teacher education is that the political and public discourse about teacher education has been historically condescending and recently further eroded by the essential failure of teacher education: the technocratic and bureaucratic nature of certification.

While NCTQ has fostered both an influential and compelling presence in the teacher education debate, we must acknowledge that think-tank advocacy and reports are often agenda-driven and not well suited for education reform. Further, Diane Ravitch has challenged NCTQ’s agenda, Susan Benner’s review of NCTQ’s first report has highlighted the flaws in NCTQ’s methods and conclusions, and Anthony Cody and Jack Hassard have further questioned NCTQ’s credibility.

Political, public, and media failure (see Yettick and Molnar) to consider think-tank credibility as well as what educational problems we are seeking to solve remain corrosive dynamics in the teacher education debate.

Beyond these direct challenges to NCTQ, however, lie the broader failures of teacher education—our repeated faith in standards, measurement, and certification.

Teacher education, and teacher quality, must be reformed away from the certification process and toward building education as a challenging discipline and raising teachers to the level of both master teachers and autonomous scholars.

I, for example, am one of those people in education with a string of education degrees—undergraduate and two graduate degrees in education. Without hesitation, based on my experiences as a student and my more recent decade as a teacher educator, the certification requirements (identifying and meeting prescribed standards, for example) do more to inhibit growth as an educator and scholar than help, but every course and experience related to teacher education not linked to certification were invaluable to me.

This may sound simpler than I intend, but the central reform needed to teacher education is not more or different standards and accountability for those standards, but a renaissance of expertise and scholarship in the field of education—both for those professors and scholars of education and the students seeking to be teachers and scholars.

Professors in fields outside of education—English, political science, biology, for example—do not spend their professional time conforming to and addressing standards mandated by think tanks or the government. The agency and accountability for expertise rests within the professor. Yet, professors of education and K-12 teachers spend inordinate amounts of time and energy on bureaucratic compliance.

For both improved teacher quality and teacher education, then, we must set aside our historical and current commitments to technocratic bureaucracy. Instead, we must seek equity of access to quality teachers and schools for all students, and we must built teacher professionalism by focusing on teacher expertise and autonomy instead of standards and accountability.

Esther Quintero explains how teacher commitment is impacted by misguided attempts to hold teachers accountable as an avenue to increased teacher quality: “Furthermore, the evidence suggests that emphasis on performance and accountability ‘have effects that are substantially greater than overwork and stress.’ That is, when teachers feel that they are operating ‘under a disciplinary regime,’ negative emotions such as fear, anger and disaffection begin to take hold — and fester.”

Teacher quality and teacher education matter, but our current misguided discourse and policies promise only to ruin further the promise of universal public education driven by teachers as scholars and leaders.

Paul L. Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University.