What if "improving teacher quality" isn't THE answer?

Is this the summer of school reform discontent, when the core assumptions of the past decade are reexamined? Are assumptions such as those that gave birth to the "Washington Consensus," which in turn created No Child Left Behind, being questioned anew? So it appears.

There's the broader/bolder crowd, who argue that it's unfair to hold schools accountable for raising student achievement because so much that influences achievement is outside of schools' control. There's a growing chorus of voices that wonder whether "closing the achievement gap" should continue to be the primary objective of our education system, mostly because such an objective implies that we aren't much interested in maximizing the progress of white, middle-class, and/or high-achieving students.

Allow me to add yet another dollop of doubt to the reform consensus: Are we sure that "improving teacher quality" is the panacea that so many (including us and our friends) have suggested? Is it possible that our current fascination with "human capital development" is misguided? That both presidential campaigns' embrace of this issue is ill-considered?

Yes, the research is quite clear that the quality of a student's teacher has a greater impact on that student's achievement than anything else that schools can control. It's also clear that low-income and minority children are much less likely to be taught by "high quality teachers" (however defined) than are affluent and white children. So reformers make the jump: If we could just fill every classroom with society's "best and brightest," we'd have our education problems licked. Or, they continue, if we could just get our most talented teachers to serve in our neediest schools, we'd have our achievement gap beat.

Unfortunately, we can't hire enough great teachers, and we can't get the best teachers to serve in the neediest areas. So what's our Plan B?

Why can't we recruit millions of fabulous teachers (assuming, that is, that we need millions)? Haven't Teach For America (TFA) and The New Teacher Project (TNTP) proven that, by employing the right recruitment methods, top-notch college graduates and seasoned mid-career professionals will flock to needy classrooms? Yes and no. They've certainly demonstrated that many more of our "best and brightest" are willing to teach, at least for short periods of time, than lots of people once assumed. TFA is growing robustly; this fall's class will reach 5,000 teachers, up from 1,000 ten years ago. And TNTP is getting great results in a handful of major cities. In New York City, for example, almost one in ten current teachers came through its Teaching Fellows Program--and now that city's "teacher quality gap" is shrinking. The strategy of opening up the teacher pipeline to non-traditional routes is clearly showing some success, in some areas. (Areas, by the way, that tend to attract young high-flyers; the list of such areas is unfortunately short.)

But this strategy isn't showing success at scale. And thanks to our national obsession with "reducing class size," we boast a teacher workforce of more than three million; teachers coming through TFA and TNTP are a metaphorical drop in the bucket.

Certainly lots more new teachers are these days entering classrooms through alternate routes (up to a third, according to some estimates), but we found last year that most alternative certification is of dubious quality and doesn't attract stellar candidates. Furthermore, the teacher recruitment challenge is only going to get tougher in coming years as Baby Boomers retire en masse. Many of the Boomer teachers taught for thirty-odd years; they will likely be replaced by twenty-somethings who will last five years at best. (That's not necessarily because education has a "retention" problem but because today's twenty-somethings don't work anywhere for more than a few years.) And the education system will be competing against other employers for top-notch college grads, particularly since the number of workers in their 30s and 40s is dropping precipitously. (This is the demographic "trough" between the Boomers and their children.) The math doesn't lie: it's highly unlikely that we're ever going to recruit three million "great" teachers.

That leads to the other teacher quality strategy du jour: creating incentives (or mandates) for great teachers to serve in tough areas, thereby (if it works) at least creating a more equitable distribution of top teachers. By all means, let's try it, particularly the incentives variety. Let's see if ten or twenty thousand dollars extra a year will entice the most effective teachers into the most challenging schools. (Finding that money is going to be quite a trick during a recession, though.) But compelling great teachers to work in rough schools will definitely fail, for the same reason that busing failed three decades ago: we live in a free country, and if pushed into neighborhoods in which they don't want to be, teachers, like parents, will leave the system.

That would be the likely result of the laudable but naïve reforms currently contemplated for Title I's "comparability" rules, whereby districts would have to ensure that each of their schools' payrolls would be roughly the same. (Affluent schools now tend to have much larger payrolls because they can recruit veteran teachers, who earn much more than rookies.) That would mean recouping money from middle-class schools and forcing them to release some of their more expensive teachers, all in the hope such teachers will gladly transfer to a school across town, in a tougher neighborhood. Unlikely. What's more probable is that these teachers will leave the district entirely and head to the suburbs--just as desegregation-era parents did.

The challenge these reforms can't overcome is the simple fact that most local teacher markets span multiple school districts. Equalizing the teacher distribution within one district is hard to do when teachers can simply move to another district. And equalizing the teacher distribution between districts is tougher still, because it requires equalizing funding between districts. (Otherwise, the better-funded districts can always outbid the others when it comes to teacher salaries.) And though our funding system has grown more equitable in recent years in terms of the allocation of state dollars, does anyone believe that the wealthiest suburban districts will ever give up the extra funding and salary advantages they hold over their neighbors?

So let's summarize: we're unlikely to fill all of America's classrooms with teachers from the ranks of society's "best and brightest." And we're particularly unlikely to do so in tough urban or rural areas, outside of a handful of hot cities where young college grads like to live. Which means that lots of our children--especially poor and minority children--are going to have teachers who may be good but are not likely to be great. These are teachers who themselves received so-so public school educations, attended so-so colleges, are raising families and thus probably don't want to work sixty hours a week, but who do care about their students and want them to succeed.

Shouldn't we be thinking about how to make these average teachers more effective, too, and augmenting them via technology and other stratagems, rather than putting all our eggs in the "superstar teacher" basket? (Look out for my thoughts about how to do that in a future Gadfly.)

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