I applaud SCORE CEO Jamie Woodson and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman for their column advocating a sharper focus on teacher quality in Tennessee. They point out that Tennessee’s colleges should be more selective in terms of who enters teacher preparation programs and also that teacher licensure should be a more rigorous process. These are both laudable goals.
Their basis for making this argument is research suggesting that a child’s teacher is the number one school-based factor influencing student achievement.
Let’s be clear about what this means before we go further. Most research suggests that school-based factors account for roughly 50% of the impact on student achievement. Non-school factors (home life, poverty, education level of parents, etc.) account for the other 50%. Of school-based factors, a child’s teacher can impact up to 50% of student achievement. That makes it the biggest school-based influencer on student achievement. But it also means teacher quality accounts for 25% of the impact on student achievement. 75% is beyond the teacher’s control. At that level, you could have amazing teachers and get the other 75% wrong and the student will still struggle and likely fail.
That said, school systems can only really control school-based factors and of those, teacher quality is the one with the biggest potential for influence. So, it makes sense to focus attention there. Of course, it also makes sense to ensure that schools are clean and safe, that class size is optimized, that principals are instructional leaders, and that the overall environment is conducive to learning. But focusing on teachers from a policy perspective is a sensible approach to impacting student achievement.
So, let’s examine the specific proposals put forth by Huffman and Woodson. First, they propose a more selective process for admission into teacher preparation programs. Next, they suggest making licensure a more rigorous process.
Again, both are sensible proposals.
Here’s the challenge in Tennessee. In order to be more selective about who becomes a candidate for a job or who is admitted to a program, the overall value proposition has to be high. Fields like law and medicine lure academic high achievers because the outlook for successful completers is positive. Career satisfaction, good pay, prestige. By contrast, teaching has a low value proposition. Many teachers in Tennessee will retire never earning what even the average lawyer or doctor makes. The attrition rate for teaching is high. Nearly 50% of teachers leave the field in their first five years, according to Richard Ingersoll. That means teaching is tough and the field weeds out those who can’t or don’t want to do the demanding work involved on the front end.
So, why would a college student choose to submit to a highly selective process for admission to a teacher education program only to enter a field where there’s a good chance they won’t make it past the first five years and if they do, they’ll earn far less than other professionals? They simply won’t. Which is why the bar for admission right now is relatively low.
To change this, Tennessee policymakers must stop talking about what they can do TO teachers and start talking about what they can do FOR teachers.
John covered the issue of performance pay in some depth. However, this plan appears to rely solely on a reallocation or infusion of local dollars to fund a new pay scheme. There’s no mention of additional state dollars or a revamping of the BEP to allow for the performance pay envisioned in the bill. Plus, as John points out, a study of performance pay by Vanderbilt of teachers in Tennessee shows such a scheme is not likely to be effective.
What does work, as indicated in this London School of Economics study, is paying teachers more. The study indicates that raising teacher pay has a clear link to student achievement. Raise pay 10%, student performance goes up roughly 10%. Why? Making the field more attractive does two things: It encourages people to pursue teaching and stay in the field AND it adds to the prestige of the profession (which also helps with retention of high performers). Metro Nashville Public Schools has some experience with this as when they moved to a new pay scale setting a minimum salary of $40,000 ($6,000 more than it had been) and enabling teachers to reach the top of the scale in 15 years rather than 25, they saw three times as many applicants for teaching jobs than they had in the past. The value proposition went up and MNPS was able to choose among applicants for the best fits for open positions.
Of course, changing the value proposition is not just about paying teachers more. It is also about ensuring they have the support they need to succeed.
One area of support is meaningful induction. That means a focused mentoring program in the first two to three years of a teacher’s career. Research at the New Teacher Center suggests that a meaningful induction program improves both teacher retention AND student learning. Tennessee has no comprehensive teacher induction program and no funding on the table to support such a plan.
Yes, we should accelerate our efforts around teacher quality in Tennessee. But if we focus solely on doing to instead of for teachers, we’ll run out of gas (and teachers) before we get very far down the road.