Promoting a quality teaching force

Now that Congress has finally passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, states are no longer required to evaluate teachers based on their students’ test scores.  This is a welcome change. Even when such evaluations have been embedded in comprehensive incentive systems for teachers, they have at best led to minor improvements in student outcomes and, at worst, to many types of distorting behavior.   The states can and should now turn their attention to the fundamentals of assuring a high quality teaching force.

Consider three possible ways of doing so:

  • One is to induce high quality college graduates to enter the teaching profession by offering competitive teacher salaries and good working conditions (an attraction strategy).
  • A second is to encourage teachers to remain in the profession as they gain experience in order to take advantage of the skills they have learned on the job and to avoid the costs of teacher churn (a retention strategy).
  • A third is to encourage teachers to improve their professional skills by getting master’s degrees (an investment strategy).

The attraction strategy is a no-brainer. The notion that people who teach do not care about money and the quality of their working environment makes little sense, especially in this day and age when women, who make up the bulk of the teaching force, have other alternatives.  No longer is it the case that college-educated women can be induced to teach at low wages because of the absence of other job opportunities. If states want high quality teachers, they need to be prepared to pay for them.

But money is not the only thing that matters. Evidence also shows that teachers care about their working conditions, a key component of which is the quality of school leadership.  So part of the attraction strategy requires that states also attract high quality principals who can provide teachers with professional and collaborative working environments.

The retention strategy also makes sense, especially in light of new research. Most people agree, and research has long confirmed, that novice teachers improve rapidly during their first few years of teaching.  Even teachers who enter the profession with strong pre-service training need to experience the trials and tribulations of being in charge of a roomful of energetic pupils—not all of whom are happy to be there—to learn the craft of successful teaching. The question, though, is whether the typical young teacher stops improving after the first several years of teaching or whether she continues to learn on the job.

My co-authored recent research challenges the conventional wisdom that gains from teaching experience end after the first five or so years of teaching.  Based on a study of all middle school math and English teachers in North Carolina over the period 2007-2011, we provide evidence that teachers continue to improve throughout at least two decades of teaching (as have other recent studies). Importantly, we find their rising effectiveness shows up not only in the form of higher student test scores but also in lower student absenteeism.  Our study differs from others in that our use of panel data allows us to include teacher fixed effects in our model, which means we are controlling statistically for all measurable and unmeasurable characteristics of teachers such as their ability and motivation. 

A state may be tempted to substitute teachers with limited experience—who are typically cheaper because of the structure of most state salary schedules—for the more expensive experienced teachers. That approach, however, only makes sense if the new teachers have far higher intrinsic quality than the existing teachers and are prepared to stay in the profession long enough for the state to reap the benefits of their greater effectiveness as they gain experience.  Thus, in addition to pursuing actions to attract high quality teachers, states should be working hard to retain the experienced teachers they have.  Fortunately, the strategies for doing both are similar: paying competitive salaries and providing strong working conditions based on a culture that views teachers as professionals.     

Although the third strategy—an investment with a focus on master’s degrees for teachers—might at first appear to be a sensible way to raise teacher quality, research indicates that it is not.   In particular, the conventional wisdom based on many years of research is that, with a few exceptions, teachers with master’s degrees are generally no more effective than those without master’s degrees.  In a separate study, my coauthor and I tried to challenge this conventional view on the grounds that most of the studies were based on elementary school teachers and some had statistical flaws. Using data on North Carolina middle school and high school teachers in multiple subjects, however, we were unable to overturn the traditional wisdom. As a consequence, we conclude that it is hard to justify automatic salary bumps for teachers who have master’s degrees on the grounds that the degree makes them more effective in the classroom. 

Our research also suggests, however, that by giving teachers a way to raise their salaries, the salary bumps for master’s degrees may have served the purpose of keeping teachers in the profession.  If states choose to eliminate them, they will need to attend to the challenge of providing alternative financial incentives for teachers to invest in their human capital and, importantly, to remain in teaching.