There’s An Obvious Way To Improve Teaching Quality, But Getting There Won’t Be Easy

As conversations on school quality rage on, the authors of a new study from Education Next tackle a question that seems so obvious, you would never think to ask: “Do smarter teachers make smarter students?”

Based on research in math and reading performance across 31 different countries, it appears that they do, and the relationship is much stronger than some may have expected. The full study explains that teachers’ cognitive skills vary greatly among different nations, but  those differences have a huge impact on students’ performance.

“An increase of one standard deviation in teacher cognitive skills is associated with an increase of 10 to 15 percent of a standard deviation in student performance. This implies that as much as one quarter of the gaps in average student performance across the countries in our study would be closed if each of them were to raise their teachers’ cognitive skills to the level of those in the highest-ranked country, Finland.”

If the authors’ argument holds water (and I think it does), the education reform movement may perhaps need to add add a few pages to the new “teaching quality” chapter to its playbook. We should start by thinking more critically about the quality of teaching candidates entering the profession in the first place.

Others Have Known It All Along. We Have To Start Recruiting Top-Notch Candidates.

After all, we are reminded time and time again that teaching quality is the single most important factor in student performance. If we take the findings of the Education Next study seriously, it seems imperative that we have a second look at how we’re recruiting and preparing future educators and start thinking of new ways to bring America’s brightest to the teaching profession.

For example, high-flyers like Finland, the top-ranked nation in the study, are notorious for teacher preparation programs that are rigorous and highly-selective. Finnish universities only admit the top 10 percent of their applicants into their programs, so it makes sense that teachers there would naturally have pretty high cognitive skills.

As the study points out, that has a tremendous impact on students, too. Because there’s a strong relationship between teachers’ cognitive ability and student performance, it comes as no surprise that Finland is crushing it on international tests and consistently ranks as one of most effective education systems in the world. And considering Finnish teachers are also compensated relatively well and are highly respected, top students will always have an incentive to consider teaching as a profession.

However, unlike many of the other top-performing nations in the study, the U.S. cannot really afford to be hyper-selective about who it allows to run a classroom. Teacher shortages in high-needs fields like science, math and ESL have persisted for years, and high-poverty rural districts are often forced to rely on long-term substitutes due to a lack of qualified applicants. American teachers also make less than other similarly-educated college graduates, meaning there’s little extrinsic motivation for America’s brightest young folks to consider going into teaching. To me, fixing that issue seems like square one for improving the overall quality of teaching in our public schools, and you can probably guess what point that naturally leads us to.

I’m not normally one to beat the “pay me more” drum, but reforming teacher compensation seems like the most obvious catalyst for improving the quality of candidates entering the teaching profession. Somehow, inexplicably, teacher pay in many school districts is still primarily decided by years of experience and certification rank, though neither are particularly adept measurements of teaching quality. Money may not grow on trees, but it certainly talks. For better or worse, systematically improving teaching quality in the U.S. is going to have to involve higher salaries.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we stop having discussions about elevating the teaching profession and improving the rigor of American teacher preparation programs. Undoubtedly, those reforms would be valuable for improving teacher quality as well. However, considering how much stronger some nations’ teaching forces look compared to ours, it’s clear that we must first work to incentivize and elevate teaching as a career before we can make those meaningful next steps.

If we fail to do that, should we really expect much to change?

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