Why teachers are under the microscope

Teacher talent is squarely at the frontier of education reform. This week, The New Teacher Project issued a report that scrutinized teacher retention practices, finding that many top-shelf teachers—especially those in poorer schools where the need for effective teachers is the greatest—leave to teach in better schools, or leave the profession altogether.

In 2010, McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm, published a blistering report of America’s teaching profession. McKinsey found that, in comparison to countries with high-flying education systems, America has a woeful teacher workforce: too many American teachers come from the bottom of their graduating college class, while too few top-performing college students consider teaching—much less enter the profession.

With these teacher quality issues in mind, I wanted to see how future grad-school education students fared on their GREs, the grad-school admissions exam. Educational Testing Service (ETS) administers the GRE, and in its summary statistics report, ETS breaks down test results by the test-taker's intended major—with education as a possible selection.

How did America’s future educators fare? Consider figure 1 which compares the average GRE score by intended grad-school major across two exam sections: quantitative (math) and verbal. On the left, education majors rank dead last in average quantitative score, even behind mathematically-challenged English and philosophy majors (they’re part of the humanities category). On the right side of figure 1, we observe that education majors rank in a tie for third-to-last in verbal score, falling well behind their peers in the humanities and social sciences. It’s a relief, however, to know that future educators (many of whom will teach reading and writing) at least outscore engineers and accountants in their verbal skills.

Figure 1: Average GRE score by intended major and test section, August 2011 to April 2012

Source: Educational Testing Service. Note: Score range is 130 and 170. Overall average (quantitative) is 151.3. Overall average (verbal) is 150.8.

What's shown here reinforce the concerns about teacher talent that McKinsey and The New Teacher Project have documented. According to the GRE data, many lower-performing college grads will be entering graduate schools of education, and eventually, the teaching profession. Three strategies to address this human capital problem have and should be further explored:   

  • First, the education sector should recruit the smartest and retain the most proven teachers—as McKinsey and The New Teacher Project recommend. This strategy has already given birth to programs such as Teach For America, a national organization that recruits from some of America’s top universities and which will come to Ohio beginning this fall.
  • Second, university-level schools of education should develop stronger curricula that emphasize content mastery over pedagogy. As the GRE test scores indicate, grad-school education majors tend to have especially weak math skills and merely average verbal skills; consequently, schools of education must add a strong dose of reading, writing, and arithmetic just to get their students up to par.  
  • Third, state boards of education should toughen teaching licensure requirements. Here in Ohio, for example, aspiring early and elementary education teachers are not required to pass a teacher-license exam in any subject area (e.g., English or math). Instead, they only have to pass tests that assess teaching and child development knowledge. The Ohio Board of Education should consider requiring all teachers—from elementary to high school—to pass a content-area exam.

These approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, and all need to be exploited as pathways to a stronger teaching workforce. With the Common Core standards—which will require deeper content knowledge of our nation’s teachers—looming on the horizon, teacher talent should remain fixed at the top of the ed-reform docket. And in the Buckeye State, which will implement the Common Core in 2014, there should be greater urgency in rethinking how our future teachers are selected, trained, licensed, and retained. There should be no place for teachers who can’t do math, read, and write well: how can one teach well, if one hasn’t learned?

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