Teacher Quality Matters

Dr. Ada Beth Cutler | December 28, 2011 | Opinion
Excellence in teaching is a continuum, and campus-based training programs are only the beginning of the journey to master teacher

While NJ Spotlight is on winter hiatus, we’ve asked some of the state’s thought leaders to share their opinions and expertise with our community. We’ll be back, rested and ready, next week.

These days, there’s strong consensus that the most important school factor in student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. As a result, teacher quality is front and center in almost everyone’s education reform agenda, from President Obama to Gov. Chris Christie. Yet there is no simple formula for achieving the worthy goal of a competent and effective teacher in every classroom in America. Proposals include multiple pathways to teaching, new systems of teacher evaluation, tenure reform, and merit pay. Whatever the policies may be, there is an important context that must be understood and considered to have a positive impact on teacher quality. That context is the teacher development continuum that starts with high-quality preparation, goes through the novice years, and continues to status as a master teacher. Let’s focus on three important points in that development continuum: teacher preparation, the first year of teaching, and master teacher status.

Teacher preparation is a hot-button issue. Many policymakers are convinced that a major barrier to teacher quality is poor teacher preparation in our colleges and universities and that the answer is to promote faster, alternate routes to teaching. If only it were that simple. Not all alternate routes to teaching are effective nor are all traditional programs ineffective. We do know that the majority of teachers are prepared in college or university-based programs. Across the country, there are outstanding campus-based programs, mediocre ones, and ones that frankly should be shut down. In New Jersey, national accreditation is required for college and university-based programs, but that only assures that these programs meet threshold conditions of quality. There is no system in place to discern gradations of program quality, especially in terms of learning outcomes once teacher candidates are in their own classrooms.

At Montclair State University, we have been calling for a statewide system of valid and fair teacher education accountability, based on outcomes data, for years. I know acting commissioner Chris Cerf is eager to establish such a system in New Jersey. Although Montclair State has achieved Top 20 national ranking for teacher education in US News and World Report’s Best Graduate Schools for the past two years and was named one of ten leading teacher preparation programs in the nation by Edutopia, we are still missing essential information about our program outcomes. For instance, we do not know what percentage of our graduates get jobs as teachers, nor how many stay in the teaching profession, let alone how well they teach or how much their students learn. Only the state can collect, analyze, and disseminate these data.

We have anecdotal evidence and testimony from principals and supervisors that they are eager to hire Montclair State graduates because, as one principal wrote, “they are hard-working, committed, and very professional.” We do follow-up studies with employers that tell us over 75 percent of them consider Montclair State graduates well prepared or extremely well prepared for teaching , but the return rate for these surveys is too low to consider the findings reliable. Principals should be required by the state to complete a survey rating new teachers’ preparation for teaching, and the results could be shared with preparation programs and the public. Officials at the New Jersey Department of Education tell us that within a year the teacher section of the NJ SMART database will be fully developed, tested, and able to link teacher data to student data. When that happens, we will be able to get the outcomes data we need to properly assess and continue to improve our teacher preparation program. At the same time, the state will have the data it needs to hold all programs (alternate route and campus-based) accountable for the quality of the teachers they prepare. The state can then invest in scaling up and replicating high-quality programs, require other programs to improve, and shut down programs that cannot improve. That will be a major contribution toward improving teacher quality in New Jersey.

Still, improving teacher preparation is a necessary but insufficient step toward the goal of an effective teacher in every public school classroom in New Jersey. As I tell our teacher candidates each year as they embark on their careers, we can only prepare them to be excellent beginning teachers. To continue to develop into master teachers, they must rely on the school communities they join and on themselves. Unfortunately, very few public schools are structured to ensure that as many beginning teachers as possible do indeed develop into master teachers.

Despite decades of research on the need for and positive impact of induction support for new teachers, including mentors with time to coach and support their mentees, most new teachers still have a sink-or-swim experience, especially in their first year. In fact, many are given the most difficult classes in their schools, with veteran teachers drawing the plum assignments. No first year medical resident, first year law associate, or first year psychologist is given full responsibility for their cases. Instead, they work under the close supervision of senior colleagues who devote time to teaching and mentoring the novices in their profession. In most of the nations at the top of international student achievement rankings, teachers spend their first year in an internship with close supervision by master teachers. These nations do not have the problem of teacher attrition that we suffer from in the United States, especially in urban and rural schools, where almost 50 percent of teachers leave in the first five years. In contrast to that alarming statistic, in school districts in the United States that use the New Teacher Center model of carefully selected, fully prepared mentor teachers coupled with standards-based protocols and instruments for observations and coaching, the retention rate for teachers is over 90 percent. In addition, first year teachers who have full-time, high-quality mentors working with them produce more learning gains for their students than other first year teachers.

There is no question that comprehensive, high-quality induction programs for new teachers are expensive, but not nearly as expensive as the costs of replacing teachers who drop out of the profession or transfer from urban to suburban schools in search of easier assignments. The cost to students who repeatedly have first year teachers is even greater in terms of their learning and, sadly, that fate largely falls to students of poverty who need the most capable teachers. Even a very effective first year teacher cannot produce the same learning gains for students as an experienced, master teacher. We will never achieve the goal of a knowledgeable, effective teacher in every classroom until we stem the tide of teacher attrition.

Once we retain more teachers as a result of high quality induction support, schools must do more to enable teachers to reach their full potential. Visit any school where children or adolescents are successfully engaged in meaningful learning and you will also find teachers who are engaged in learning and developing their own knowledge and skills. These are schools where teachers have time to meet, analyze student data, share curriculum planning, and observe each other in action. Furthermore, when a school focuses on teacher learning and collaboration as necessary elements in high student achievement, there are opportunities for master teachers to take on new roles as mentors, team leaders, and staff developers. This kind of career differentiation sustains and retains our best teachers in the classroom.

A focus on improving teacher preparation, teacher induction, and ongoing teacher development could bring together stakeholders who need to find common ground and purpose. Teachers, teachers’ unions, the higher education community, principals and supervisors, policymakers, and school boards could transcend political agendas and arguments by working together to make a difference in teacher quality. Ultimately, the children in our public schools will be the winners.