Why does US recruit teachers from bottom third of class?

(Centennial Fellow) As the hard–won accomplishment that is SB–191 moves deliberately towards fulfillment, it is important to remember that however admirable, it is but a single element in the more comprehensive challenge of improving teacher quality.

While the public has long fixated on what to do about ineffective teachers—an issue most usefully addressed here in Colorado by last year’s Senate Bill 191—far less attention has been given to the much larger question of how we recruit teachers in the first place.

It is imperative to focus on this critical matter because today there is abundant evidence that the American approach to teacher recruitment is the most dysfunctional system to be found in any industrial nation.

At the heart of the problem is the painful fact that the people being admitted to the ranks of America’s K–12 teachers are the wrong people.

As reported by researchers for the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2006 top performing nations draw their teachers from the top five to thirty percent of their high school classes, depending on the country. The United States, in contrast, draws its teachers on average from the bottom third of the class.

This fact does much to explain the poor quality of training at U.S. schools of education. As Barber and Mourshed report in How the World’s Best Performing School Systems Come out on Top, “Because the quality of students is low, so is the quality of courses; professors at schools of education are famously the least respected faculty at universities. Teaching becomes a low status profession.”

The stark contrasts between U.S. teacher recruitment practices and those of our international competitors are further illuminated in A Comparative Study of Teacher Preparation and Qualifications in Six Nations (2007) edited by Richard M. Ingersoll. There we learn that top performing nations restrict access up front to teacher training programs, and select only a small proportion of applicants who emerge from a highly competitive process.

In those nations serious money is invested in the careful training and development of each individual teacher. Subject teachers also receive “vastly more content–area training” than in the United States, and teachers are much less likely to teach outside of their content area. Training programs are prestigious and teaching is a high status profession.

Getting beyond the depressing landscape of American dysfunction in teacher recruitment and training, the good news is that several prominent school districts have recognized this problem and are aggressively and successfully doing something about it. By their example they are conclusively proving that the United States is capable of dramatically improving the quality of our country’s K–12 teachers—an absolutely indispensable element in any real revival of American public education.

Among the most successful of these district initiatives are the New York City Teaching Fellows program, Chicago Teaching Fellows, and the Boston Teacher Residency. All have created alternative paths to teaching modeled on the practices of top performing countries. All recruit top graduates of highly selective colleges, and universities and submit them to relatively brief but intensive training. None require applicants to take education courses, or jump through the beurocratic hoops of state certification, obstacles which have historically deterred many gifted teachers from considering public schools.

The New York program gets particularly high praise from the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement.

The program initially drew 2100 top flight applicants, and selected just 325. By 2008 there were 17,000 applicants, and graduating fellows provided fully one–third of the district’s new math teachers. The 2009 class was the most highly selective ever, with just one in ten applicants being chosen.

All of these programs owe a great debt to Teach For America (TFA) founded by Wendy Kopp in 1990. Locating only in the most challenging districts TFA today operates in fourteen states including Colorado.

Illustrating the heartening appeal of these programs to the “best and brightest” of America’s young, last year 18% of Harvard’s graduating seniors, and 16% of Princeton’s were among the 48,000 who applied for 5,100 positions in TFA.

Today other districts can emulate these programs while working with legislators to permanently eliminate ineffective course work and credentialing practices in their states.

The need is great, and the hour is late, but the road to a greatly improved American teaching profession is clearly visible before us.


William Moloney was Colorado Education Commissioner from 1997 to 2007.

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