Let’s Dispel Pervasive Teacher-Quality Myths

This post also appears in the Public School Insights blog of the Learning First Alliance.

It’s an insidious message embedded in the American psyche: Those who can’t, teach. For years, report after report has banged the drum for raising admission standards into teacher preparation programs, citing international comparisons and championing cost-prohibitive recruitment policies.

In reality, the talent pool now entering teacher preparation programs is rich. Our programs are, in fact, attracting their share of high achievers—defined by any number of criteria.

One popular (if unreliable) measure of academic ability, SAT and ACT scores, has been trending upward among novice teachers in public schools. A recent study out of Stanford University finds that new teachers in 2008 had a wide range of SAT results, evenly spanning the bottom, middle, and top third of scores. This distribution reflects a change from scores reported in 1993 and 2000, when very few new teachers came from the top third. A similar study looked at new teachers in New York state and found a significant increase in teachers from the top third of SAT scores from 1999 to 2010.

Academic ability alone, of course, does not make anyone a good teacher, nor is it meaningfully reflected in SAT scores. But preparation programs have developed other measures to screen students before program entry, including for characteristics such as key dispositions known to correlate with success in the field.

We’ve also learned to think of “selecting for quality” over a longer time span, not just on the way in but also on the way out—as well as throughout the course of the preparation program. More important than setting a high bar in admission standards, we are focused on developing and assessing candidates rigorously—including through performance measures of skill, such as edTPA, and various measures of content knowledge—for ultimate readiness to enter the profession.

In addition to debunking myths about new teachers’ academic quality, we need to speak out against the practice of assigning teachers as if they are interchangeable. Assignment in schools is a critical factor in teacher quality. A high SAT score is of little consolation if you are assigned to teach a subject or grade level outside your expertise, or if you are placed in a challenging situation without a good mentor or other support system. Assignments must be made with an eye to teachers’ specific capacities to serve. We simply can’t afford to waste the expertise of a National Board Certified Teacher, or to leave novice teachers to sink or swim in isolation.

This is not to say that we don’t need to focus on recruiting excellent candidates; that job will never go away! But there are many priorities holding our attention aside from applicants’ SAT and ACT scores. One AACTE effort, for example, is tackling recruitment in a specific area of need, aiming to increase the number of men of color entering preparation programs. Another is taking a broader focus on the teacher pipeline: AACTE’s Educator Workforce Advisory Task Force is examining challenges to new-teacher retention with scrutiny of preparation, induction models, compensation and incentives, and other factors.

As we continue these efforts to support and improve the teacher pipeline, we need to trumpet our successes, advocate for what we know is right—and expose pervasive myths masquerading as truth.

Throughout 2015, AACTE will be engaging its membership and partner organizations in a concerted effort to debunk myths about educator preparation and teacher quality. In particular, we will call on members to share stories about how their programs are helping to dispel these myths. Stay tuned to join in the effort!

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Sharon Robinson

President and CEO, AACTE