Center for American Progress

The Teacher Quality Dilemma: Will We Ever Make Progress?

The Teacher Quality Dilemma: Will We Ever Make Progress?

Every state in the nation will miss the No Child Left Behind Act’s June 30 federal deadline to have high quality teachers employed in all schools. Teachers are the most important factor in educational success for most youngsters, especially those from low-income families. The continuing shortage of good teachers jeopardizes progress in education improvement.

Examples abound of highly effective teachers in every community, but study after study concludes that the quality of teaching in the United States is inadequate on many measures.

Congress took major new steps to address the teacher quality issue when it enacted the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. It required, among other things, that:

  • States must assure that in every school, all teachers in core academic subjects are highly qualified by the end of the 2005-06 school year.
  • States develop plans spelling out affirmative steps to ensure that poor and minority students are “not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of field teachers” as well as the measures they will use to evaluate and publicly report progress with these steps.
  • Funding must be increased for professional development in schools with the lowest proportion of highly qualified teachers, largest class sizes, or those identified as in need of improvement under Title I, which defines what high quality professional development is and is not.

Dismal Results

To date, none of these provisions have had much effect.

  • Not one state has met the requirement of employing all highly qualified teachers in core subjects. Many of those who have supposedly come close are “gaming” the system with low measures of teacher quality. Although the U.S. Department of Education paid little attention to what was going on in states until last year, it is finally starting to crack down.
  • The U.S. Department of Education ignored the requirements for state plans on the equitable distribution of teachers until recently, only requiring them this summer. Consequently, most states and districts continued business as usual.
  • While there are examples of districts and schools engaging in more strategic professional development practices, studies continue to find, and complaints from teachers confirm, that most professional development is of little help.
  • Teacher preparation programs continue to ignore priority education needs. The latest example of this comes from the National Center on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) in its recent report, “What Education Schools Aren’t Teaching About Reading — and What Elementary Teachers Aren’t Learning.” NCTQ found that few schools in its sample of 72 teach their teacher candidates the science of reading. Is this the reason why student reading achievement remains flat?

An Urgent Need for Change

The question of how to improve teacher quality has been debated for many years. Proposed answers abound, but significant action rarely ensues. Urgency builds with calls to close student achievement gaps at home and on the international stage. At the same time, an unprecedented number of teachers are reaching retirement age, which pushes the imperative for schools across the nation to attract and retain higher quality teachers.

Specific ideas about how to instigate these changes are in short supply. Many things must be done simultaneously; there is no one solution. It will take a combination of sustained local, state, and federal actions if the quality of teaching is to be ratcheted up.

  1. There needs to be more focus on teacher results with students rather than teacher credentials. More states are coming online every year with data systems that make it possible to match teachers with their students’ achievement results.
  2. Working conditions for teachers must improve, which means attention to safety, student discipline, well-maintained facilities, and most importantly, getting a skilled principal who can produce and lead a collaborative work environment in every school.
  3. Hiring practices must be streamlined, especially in urban school districts where archaic human resource procedures encourage late teacher notification of retirement or resignation. There is then a consequent loss of eager teacher candidates, who take positions in other districts where they receive more timely notification of their hiring.
  4. Districts and schools must get serious about the quality of professional development. Instead of drawing from professional development pots of money sprinkled among numerous programs of varying size, they need to combine them together and expend them for mostly school-based teacher learning. School-based development programs can respond to each school’s individual needs for improvement if they are of extended duration, have clear purpose and content-specificity, and are research based and collaborative.
  5. More sensible, transparent school financing systems need to be substituted at all levels that employ a weighted student formula where funding comes on a per-student basis to the public school. Per-student funding should vary according to each child’s need, with funds arriving at the school as real dollars (i.e., not teaching positions, ratios, or staffing norms) that can be spent flexibly. They need to be accompanied by accountability systems focused more on results and less on inputs, programs, or activities.
  6. Teacher preparation institutions must be held accountable for the quality of teachers they produce. Weak institutions should be publicly identified as needing improvement and subjected to interventions if improvement does not take place.
  7. Teacher and principal compensation systems, with their uniform salary schedules, must be redesigned so that higher quality candidates are attracted to teaching. Effective teachers can be retained through the introduction of career ladders and rewards for student achievement success, and talented teachers can be encouraged to work in high poverty and/or low performing schools or in subject areas with teacher shortages through financial (and other) incentives.
  8. Simultaneously with the redesign of compensation systems, teacher salaries, especially in urban and rural areas, must be raised substantially.

The Center for American Progress is giving special attention to the teacher and principal compensation issue. With support from the Joyce Foundation, over the next two years, it expects to commission four or more papers and hold public events that will explore issues relevant to the design and implementation of teacher and principal compensation systems that reward excellent teaching and leadership — as evaluated in part by student performance — and provide incentives to teach in shortage areas or work in the most challenging schools. It will make recommendations on how to move forward with redesign.

While Center staff have not reached firm conclusions, one thing seems clear. There is a fundamental need for much experimentation over significant time periods and careful evaluation of new ways of compensating teachers particularly as well as principals. Congressman George Miller and Senator Edward Kennedy have introduced the Teacher Excellence for All Act (TEACH Act) that would provide substantial federal funds to trigger such state and local innovation and experimentation. Hopefully, it will be seriously considered when the No Child Left Behind Act reauthorization process begins in 2007.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Cynthia G. Brown

Former Senior Fellow