March 18, 2009

By request: on teaching quality

I am not going to write today about the new report, An Evaluation of Teachers Trained through Different Routes to Certification, because I haven't read it. (Other things take higher priority for me right now; the report is heading to my to-read pile. But after reading the praise and also Aaron Pallas's criticism, let alone Sean Corcoran and Jennifer Jennings's review, my curiosity is piqued.) But I have an outstanding request from a reader to discuss teaching quality, and I'm going to pull the exam-writer's trick and reformulate the question: what should policymakers know about the history of "teacher quality" in the U.S.?

Short answers: the long shadow of character, the education bootstrap, the short history of the single salary schedule, and the porous nature of certification/licensure. 

The long shadow of character

First, teaching as a career is less than 150 years old. In North America teaching was largely a short-term and part-year occupation until sometime in the 19th century (depending on where you're looking). In part because of the mix of private and taxpayer funding, and the short sessions in many places in the country, few people in the early 19th century could make a living teaching full-time. So many of the mostly-male teachers were in schools only part of the year, filling in when they didn't have opportunities to preach, attend college, or engage in something else.

Because of the multiple missions of schooling, academic qualifications were low on the priority list for those hiring teachers. The key qualification was high character, and the most common practical qualification was the ability to control a classroom. The source in many history of ed texts illustrating the second is Edward Eggleston's The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1871), a novel whose subtitle tells the tale: "A Story of Backwoods Life in Indiana." At the beginning of the story, the new schoolmaster is asked by trustee Jack Means,

"Want to be a school-master, do you? You? Well, what would you do in Flat Crick deestrick, I'd like to know? Why, the boys have driv off the last two, and licked the one afore them like blazes. You might teach a summer school, when nothin' but children come. But I 'low it takes a right smart man to be school-master in Flat Crick in the winter. They'd pitch you out of doors, sonny, neck and heels, afore Christmas."

In the nineteenth century, a smart teacher had the ability to control older boys, presumably by making them smart when necessary. 

That wasn't universally true; one of the common arguments for hiring women as teachers rather than men was their presumably nurturing nature. The gender stereotype of who was the right teacher inevitably involved questions about who could properly motivate students, especially boys. Never mind that women could use a switch on a student as easily as a man could. Or the rather clever way that hiring women allowed urban school districts to have a workforce that was cheaper and less likely to hop to other jobs -- because women had fewer higher-paying opportunities. (The same dynamic was true with African American teachers in the 20th century, at least until the 1964 Civil Rights Act; teaching was one of the best opportunities for upward mobility.) The rationale was all about sweetness and light, nurturing and character.

The legacy of all that history is that academic qualifications became an issue decades after the spread of mass primary schooling in the North. Part of the resistance was a fear of centralization; as New York state politician Orestes Brownson said, once the first normal schools were established, then states would try to work it so that no one but a normal-school graduate could teach. (He was partly right; see the "porous nature" section below.) Concerns about morality led schools to bar women from teaching after marrying, then forcing maternity leave when pregnancies began showing. Even now, morality will trump academics in the news. When was the last time your local television news show ran a story about teacher qualifications (either academic background or effectiveness)? When was the last time it ran a story about a teacher having sex with a student?

As I have argued elsewhere, this focus on virtue has caused serious long-term harm in how we look at teaching. And in the long run, those who argue about whether it's most important to intervene in teachers' disciplinary background, pedagogical training, or effectiveness in raising test scores are having a debate that could not have existed 100 years ago. So to the partisans in that argument, you are all light-years ahead of Jack Means and his real-world counterparts.

The education bootstrap (as in lifting up onself by one's, not engaging in violence with a)

Teaching was not a career in the early 19th century, but women could be teachers by the middle and end of the century, because the start of mass schooling generated an adult population with at least a minimum of formal education. A few weeks ago when I heard Joseph Kisanji of the Tanzania Education Network talk about the state of special education in Tanzania, what struck me was the low proportion of primary students who continued to secondary grades. That plus the high fertility rate in Tanzania puts the country behind the eight-ball, having a very high ratio of children in need of a teacher to adults with enough education to teach. Add sex discrimination in the form of requiring girls to work and thus discouraging them from secondary school, plus the legacy of "villagization" in the 1970s (the Tanzanian equivalent of Soviet collectivization) and you've got a serious dilemma for the country. While the average student-teacher ratio is something like 50:1, according to Kisanji in some areas of Tanzania, that ratio is 70:1, 80:1, or even 100:1.

At some point, that dilemma exists with every population, at least in the abstract if not with 100:1 ratios) because you start out with less knowledge in the adult population than you'd like, and to get there, you first need a critical mass of adults who are both educated and also willing to teach. Let's call that the educational starting hole.

The United States essentially lifted itself out of the starting hole through coeducation and mass primary education (even if it was inconsistent). The pool of available teachers grew in the 19th century with the willingness (and eventual preference) to hire women and also by declining fertility and mortality, so that the proportion of the population in elementary and secondary school ages shrank. That demographic transition gave the next few generations a chance to keep expanding the critical mass of educated adults.

One stumbling block since WW2 has not been the number of adults with bachelor's degrees but the consequences of reduced discrimination for fields such as teaching that have historically relied on discrimination elsewhere as a recruiting device. In terms of generating an educated adult population, we're doing fairly well as a country. (That's an historian's hindsight, not a statement of satisfaction.) What is remarkable to my historian's eye is that so few college graduates today need to enter teaching to satisfy the bulk of school needs. The struggle to attract great college graduates to teaching is less the total number of graduates than the question of who goes into teaching and the alternatives that pull potential teachers into other fields.

That doesn't mean that teachers know everything they should. The accessible availability of "content knowledge" (an awful phrase, to be honest) is far more widespread than access to great repertoires of teaching techniques and the opportunities to practice them. There's a long story and debate there, and I'll just suggest that while you can learn a great deal about physics online from Walter Lewin, there's little parallel for how to teach high-school physics. (Fans of sciencegeekgirl, please understand I'm talking about videos... I know there's plenty of text-based material online.)

This also suggests that what Tanzania desperately needs is to boost its secondary schooling. The country is one of the world's poorest, and while it is not in the same awful shape as Zimbabwe or Darfur, that's saying very, very little. Get a critical mass of young adult Tanzanians reasonably educated, and the following generation will be much better off in part because there will be a greater mass of potential teachers.

In terms of the U.S., we should understand both where our strengths lie (a much more broadly educated adult population than many countries) as well as weaknesses. Maybe one example will illustrate: the teaching of math in elementary and middle schools. In the past two decades, there has been a generational change in the amount of math that high school graduates have taken, especially among girls. (This change comes from the mid-80s increase in graduation course requirements in many states.) At the same time, there has been a deliberate effort to improve the teaching of math. I'm not going to get into the debates over the 1989 National Council for the Teaching of Mathematics standards statement or its more recent revisions, but the discussion is out there in the ether and should not be ignored.

The first trend is something that is a strength as far as the academic skills of potential teachers is concerned: more high school graduates (and thus college graduates) have exposure to math through any level than before 1982 or 1983. It is certainly not universal or complete; there are still too many elementary teachers who fear math and pass that fear on. (As far as I'm concerned, a single teacher who does so is too many.) The second trend? I'm not sure, and I'll hedge my bets by referring to Larry Cuban's hybridization thesis: I'd bet more elementary and middle-school teachers are using manipulatives and activities that try to "make sense" of math, but probably few are engaging in what its critics might refer to as unstructured teaching in the name of constructivism. Some part of that, but probably not much, is related to a deeper understanding of how children do or could learn math. Both issues (knowledge of math and knowledge of teaching math) have changed over the past generation or so. One of them, possibly both, is likely to be responsible for Florida's steadily increasing math scores on NAEP for eighth-graders since 1990.

The history of the single salary schedule

Advocates of differential and performance pay for teachers sometimes portray the single salary schedule as a long-term legacy of an inefficient bureaucracy, and that's partly true. You can find some sort of salary schedule in the growing school bureaucracies of 19th century cities. But there are some substantial features of salary schedules before World War 2 that suggest how short the single salary schedule's life has been.

First is the difference between elementary and secondary teacher pay. In Philadelphia, the teachers at Central High School were treated like royalty in comparison with all other teachers in the system, at least at the beginning of Central's life when it was the only high school in the city. Teachers were called "professors," were paid much better than elementary teachers, and were largely autonomous. And they were men. As Philadelphia added more high schools, Central High and its teachers lost prestige and authority, but the gap between elementary and high school teachers was persistent and reflected in the structure of teacher organizations (including nascent unions) and pay.

Second is the treatment of teacher pensions and gender. In many cities in the mid-20th century, pensions had conditions that disadvantaged women who had children. In Nashville, for example, I've come across age guidelines that eliminated all teachers who began a job over age 40 from being eligible for the pension plan. What that did was eliminate from pension plans the women who taught for a few years before having children, left teaching as their children were growing up, and then wanted to return to teaching later.

Third is the persistent racial inequalities in teacher pay, even after the 1940 Melvin Alston equalization case. Scott Baker has argued that in the fight for teacher equal pay, many Southern school districts began to use the National Teacher Examination as a basis for pay differentiation after they were told that African American teachers scored lower on the NTE than white teachers.

In the history of teachers in the U.S., the development of bureaucratic pay schemes fit comfortably with discriminatory practices, and one of the victories of unions, civil rights activists, and women's civic groups has been the elimination of explicit discrimination in pay schemes. Need one require a single salary schedule to maintain that accomplishment? I don't think so, but to ignore the history is foolish, and there needs to be a watchdog so that there isn't a resurgence of pay discrimination among teachers.

The porous nature of certification/licensure

Nineteenth-century New York politician Orestes Brownson was partly right when he thought that the creation of normal schools would centralize the qualification of teachers. The normal schools of the 1800s became recognized and eventually grew to teachers colleges and regional state universities, and "teacher training" has become a common feature of what people do before they become teachers.

At the same time (and in a related way), if slowly, inconsistently, and unevenly, school administrators began to give preferences or require teachers to have some formal training, whether provided at county training schools or in state university schools or colleges of education. As the curriculum expanded in the early 20th century, administrators pushed the  generally minimal state bureaucracies to expand specialized credentials (or endorsements); one mark of the expansion of special education in postwar Tennessee, for example, is the creation of a licensure specifically for special educators. 

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the vast majority of states had a licensure structure for teaching that at least nominally required licensure for teaching, recognized divisions between elementary and secondary education, and recognized specializations at all levels (whether subject specialization in secondary education or specializations in services provided at multiple levels).

The alert reader may note that I did not claim that teacher education has a lock on teacher training or other professional-role entry in schools. Far from it! Even when states have established laws mandating that permanently-appointed teachers have licensure, the loopholes have been plentiful and large. Substitutes and temporary or emergency licenses have been common ways around certification/licensure requirements, and the proliferation of alternative certification programs has eroded the minimal barriers that certification/licensure poses. I suspect it would be a feasible dissertation project to document that as we have gone through two waves of babies in the past 70 years, there has been a consistent pattern in licensure practices: certification/licensure is loose when there is a shortage of teachers and tightens when there is a surplus of regularly-licensed teachers. (Who says that history can't meet the Popper definition of science: there's a disconfirmable prediction! Okay, so the claim is probably trivial to document...)

The nature of the loosening depends on geography and period, but my guess is that poor rural and urban school districts have been the most likely to have a "fog the mirror" standard for teachers, even when there has been a shortage. (Another prediction that can be checked...) That is less a cause of unequal provision of teachers to disadvantaged children and communities than a consequence. But the historical fact is that licensure has developed but not enclosed teaching.

An article by Donald Boyd et al. in the December Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, "Surveying the Landscape of Teacher Education in New York City," is particularly interesting in that historical perspective. What Boyd and his coauthors convincingly demonstrate is that the NYC Teaching Fellows program has not really competed with college-credentialed new teachers. Instead, Fellows replaced the emergency/temporary licensure population of prior years. Consistently over this decade, college-credentialed programs have been unable to supply enough teachers for New York City schools. This pattern is not an anomaly. Instead, it demonstrates the historically porous nature of teacher licensure. 


I hate sections that are titled Implications. Yeah, right, as if I know all the implications of this: I don't. I can spot when a policymaker has a theory of action that ignores the history, but it's not clear how to draw lines from this history to current policy dilemmas. Not that I don't have some ideas about "teacher quality" policy issues, but this entry took about 6 weeks to take shape in the evenings and on weekends, while lots of other things took precedence, and this is the type of question that could justify a book. (Someone else take this on, please; I have enough to write about for the rest of my life!) The reader request was interesting enough to make me think about this in at least some depth, and for that, I am grateful. If you find this of some value, that's great, and please let me know in the comments if you can draw a straight line from this stuff to policy.

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Tags: history of education, teacher quality
Posted in Education policy on March 18, 2009 4:21 PM |