The death this week of the great East L.A. math teacher Jaime Escalante revived the question that first came to mind when “Stand and Deliver” hit movie screens in 1988: Why can’t we just replicate the Escalante magic thousands of times over? Imagine what educational heights might be attained.
Unfortunately, it’s not so easy. Escalante was a mold-breaker, a force of nature in the classroom. Years before the term “achievement gap” was coined, he took under his wing the low-income minority students who weren’t considered star material by conventional thinking and pushed them to the top levels of achievement. His keen mind, passion and initiative are not simple qualities to clone.
But Escalante’s death reminds us of the importance of finding, training and retaining excellent teachers. Study after study shows that the quality of teachers and principals is the key factor in how well students learn. It’s also the aspect of education that is most consistently undervalued by the school reform movement, which has emphasized standardized tests and curriculum.
The components that make up a great teacher are not a mystery, and there is much that policy leaders could do to bring us closer to the ideal Escalante personified.
Effective teachers tend to have been first-rate college students, often attending selective universities, according to research gathered by the National Council on Teacher Quality. In fact, there’s also a correlation between students’ SAT scores in high school and their effectiveness as teachers years later. Good teachers possess excellent verbal ability and real expertise in the subjects they teach. They keep discipline in the classroom while making it clear that they care about their students.
Yet according to a 1998 report by the California Research Bureau, students who enter teacher training “tend to have graduated in the bottom half of their high school and college classes.” Many teachers are teaching subjects that are outside their areas of expertise and certainly outside their college majors. Lack of student discipline is the top complaint made by teachers in surveys.
It’s true that teachers receive neither the pay nor the prestige that usually attracts the best and brightest; people like Escalante, who will throw aside more lucrative job possibilities in math and the sciences for a teaching career, are not the rule. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even without the admittedly necessary improvements in teachers’ working conditions, Teach for America has shown that top-drawer college students can be drawn into the profession. In 2009, more than 35,000 college seniors applied for 3,600 slots in the public service program, which trains new graduates and places them in hard-to-staff urban schools. More than 11% of all seniors at Ivy League schools applied. Studies have found that these new teachers were at least as effective as more experienced, traditionally trained teachers. They often stay in the profession well after their initial two-year stint has ended.
The National Center for Teacher Quality, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, argues that teachers colleges can similarly raise their standards for applicants, though they might not get quite as many Ivy League candidates. Countries with better education systems and better success rates with low-income minority students have higher standards for entering the teaching profession. Finland admits only the top 10% of high school graduating classes, the center reports, and Singapore the top third. Further, according to the center, raising standards for entering teaching programs, as Britain and Massachusetts have, does not result in teaching shortages. On the contrary, higher standards appear to make the career more attractive.
Teacher programs can train prospective educators in many of the skills that are most closely correlated to success, including sharpened verbal proficiency and dexterity at maintaining class discipline. But many of these programs, taught by professors rather than seasoned public school teachers, are out of touch with the needs of today’s schools. They still emphasize educational philosophy and theory over practice, and give students too little opportunity to observe, critique and imitate a range of effective teaching techniques.
If the Obama administration wants to address shortcomings in the nation’s teaching corps, it should fret less about whether students’ standardized test scores are included in teachers’ performance evaluations and place more emphasis on reforming the areas where effective teaching starts: the admissions policies, curriculum and instructional practices at the nation’s teaching colleges. States should hold these training programs accountable for how well their graduates perform, just as public schools are responsible for the academic achievement of their students.
Once teachers are in place, it’s up to policymakers and the schools themselves to retain and further train them. One area that the federal Race to the Top program has rightly stressed is the need for better evaluations of teachers and rewards based on those evaluations. A key aspect of Delaware’s winning application for federal funds was its plan to coach principals on how to evaluate teachers. It also will provide bonuses for the most effective teachers who work in high-need schools and devise other merit-based rewards, including career ladders for instructors. Letting teachers interact with and be evaluated by their peers is equally important, but it has not been given the attention it deserves.
Perhaps even more vital to staffing our schools with vibrant teachers is unshackling them from lock-step curriculum and instructional methods. Even Escalante struggled with administrators who were wary of his unconventional methods, and that was before the days of standardized tests. Many of the nation’s top college graduates have shown interest in teaching, but they are unlikely to stay in the classroom long if they are deprived of the chance to exercise their brains and creativity on a daily basis.