Schools increasingly rely on new teachers to staff their classrooms. A generation ago, the modal teacher had 15 years teaching experience, meaning that, if you asked teachers how many years they had taught the most likely answer would be 15. Today, the answer would be five years of experience1. And the proportion of teachers who are new to the field will increase as the Baby Boom generation retires: Some estimates forecast that half of the nation’s teachers could retire in the next ten years2.
This demand for new teachers creates some obvious challenges for the education field, but it also means that states have a unique opportunity to leverage their authority over teacher preparation and certification to raise the overall level of teacher quality and effectiveness.
To date, states have tried to affect teacher preparation in one of two ways:
Over the past 15 years, state-led efforts and Race to the Top increased the number of states in the “outcomes” group. The U.S. Department of Education is developing regulations3 on Title II and Title IV of the Higher Education Act. The regulation is still pending, but if the current version is adopted, all states will have to link completer outcomes to preparation programs and report the data publicly as of April 2019.
It’s possible that dozens of states will need to overhaul their teacher preparation standards in the next several years. Those states should learn from the ones that have already done this work.
To that end, Bellwether produced Peering Around the Corner, a new report analyzing 11 states that have made substantial progress in linking teachers to the preparation programs that prepared them. For each state, we review the technical and practical decisions they made — like determining which outcomes to measure and how to define them, identifying the right sample size, and deciding if and how to use the data for accountability. We also take a more general look at the challenges states can expect to face, and the tradeoffs they’ll have to make, as they take on this work.
But even if the HEA regulation is adopted as is, outcomes will not suddenly replace inputs in state policy. This is particularly unfortunate given there is no evidence that any input, or even a slate of inputs, ensures that teachers will be effective. At this point, the single best predictor of who will be a great teacher next year is who was a great teacher this year. But that’s it. Admission criteria, number of content courses, hours of student teaching, Praxis exam scores — these inputs have no bearing on a teacher’s future effectiveness. Yet states continue to closely regulate them, and even add new requirements, year after year. This results in a set of requirements that amount to little more than barriers — new ways to keep potential teachers out of schools and discourage programs from innovating.
Theoretically, as states move toward monitoring outcomes, the inputs won’t matter as much. But it turns out that the evidence behind outcomes isn’t as solid as once thought. Recent research shows that completer outcomes aren’t necessarily a reliable indicator of program quality. Researchers have attempted to use outcomes data to differentiate programs by the effectiveness of their completers. But there has been no pattern in the quality of teachers these programs produced. The only consistent pattern showed far more variation within preparation programs than between them. Without meaningful differences in outcomes between programs, policymakers, school districts, potential candidates, and programs themselves have little information about program quality.
All of this means that policymakers are still looking for the right way to identify effective teacher preparation and predict who will be an effective teacher. Nothing tried so far can guarantee effective teachers.
In No Guarantees, we recommend an alternative approach that relies on the best available evidence to date: initial teaching effectiveness has promise for predicting future effectiveness.
Instead of layering on additional requirements, policymakers should roll back burdensome and ineffective teaching requirements, rethink licensure, create systems to make preparation-pathway data accessible to the public, and create the conditions for alternative pathways to teaching. We propose four strategies for ensuring that schools and students have access to the best teachers possible:
In the current preparation system, becoming a teacher is laden with risk. States force candidates to spend thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars on fulfilling requirements that won’t help them become effective teachers. When a candidate finally begins teaching, she’ll waste more time on questionable professional development. If she wants a salary increase, she’ll pay for, and sit through, graduate coursework to earn an advanced degree that won’t likely help her improve her practice. And these are just the risks associated with teacher training — there is also the challenging and high-stakes work, the general low pay, and the lack of advancement opportunities that come with teaching itself. The result is a profession in which potential candidates’ actual out-of-pocket and opportunity costs are extremely high.
There are a number of ways to reduce the risks associated with teaching and make the profession more appealing. Reducing barriers to entry is one place to start.
In the current system, once a candidate meets state requirements, her teacher preparation program recommends her for licensure. This is a flawed arrangement. Most preparation programs make recommendations on the basis of the completer’s academic performance and a limited amount of (often undersupervised) student teaching experience. But, as noted above, there’s no guarantee that these experiences create a teacher who is prepared to be effective on Day One. Moreover, the current system encourages schools to treat all licensed teachers as interchangeable once they enter the classroom, with identical workloads, evaluation systems, and development opportunities.
A better system would base licensure on actual candidate performance.
States are the only entities that could have enough data to objectively assess candidate performance, placement, and retention. Candidates will never have this information unless the states collect and provide it. Districts will never see beyond their own hiring practices unless their state collects information from all schools and aggregates the results.
In the world we envision, states would do a much better job of collecting and reporting on this information. They would collect and publish program-level data on teacher effectiveness, retention, placement, and years to licensure. And they would invest substantial time and effort in making the data accessible to the public.
We don’t yet know how to identify or train good teachers. To make matters worse, as a field we recklessly embrace faddish “best practices,” whether or not there’s research to back them up. When a new idea comes along, it’s reasonable to first try it on a small scale, measure the results, and then scale it up only if the research says it’s effective. But that’s not what states have done with teacher preparation. A number of ineffective requirements — from higher minimum GPAs to more clinical coursework hours to better teacher-performance assessments — started off as good ideas that states and programs codified as policy before the ideas were tested. Instead, states, the federal government, and private philanthropy organizations should invest strategically in research on what makes a good teacher, and only then use that research to make policy.