Getting to the Heart of Quality Teaching

By the Editors of Rethinking Schools

Illustrator: Randall Enos

Illustration: Randall Enos

“Teacher quality” has become almost as popular a buzzword as “student achievement.”

But what constitutes a quality teacher? Credentials? Experience? Classroom performance? Test scores? Parent satisfaction?

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) assumes that quality can be guaranteed by requiring that all teachers be fully certified. But the connection between formal credentials and effective classroom performance has always been problematic. NCLB does not provide the resources needed to improve teacher preparation. And NCLB’s obsessive testing regime tends to deskill teachers, discourages committed teachers from staying in the profession, and degrades classroom practice in ways that contribute to educational failure.

Some private school voucher proponents, like those behind Milwaukee’s voucher program — the oldest in the nation — argue that the “free market” and “parental choice” are sufficient to ensure quality. A person can teach in one of Milwaukee’s 125 publicly funded private schools without even a high school diploma.

In another nod to the “free market,” some people promote a constellation of “alternate” routes to certification as a way of improving teacher quality. Some non-university-based programs are worthy efforts to educate thoughtful and imaginative teachers. Others resemble the unregulated voucher free-for-all and have produced some highly unqualified teachers. In some locations, poorly prepared alternate-route teachers are being used by administrators as an argument for more prescriptive “teacher proof” approaches to instruction.

The currently popular “silver bullet” solutions to teacher quality aren’t working. Teacher quality can’t be jump started by top-down mandates, scripted programs, or pay for performance. Nor will teacher quality be generated through NCLB testing or teacher bashing in the media. Such approaches ignore fundamental issues of resources, teacher leadership, teaching and learning conditions, and the need for much more time for teachers to collaborate, assess student progress, and improve their teaching skills.

Districts, schools of education, unions, and legislatures all have a role to play in improving teacher quality. The time has come to stop viewing teachers as a problem and instead treat them as professionals deserving of respect, with important insights in how to improve the classroom.

A Real and Unequal Crisis

There is an undeniable crisis in the teaching profession, one that reflects broader social inequities. Some of the “big picture” issues involve recruitment and retention of new teachers, equitable distribution of the most qualified teachers, and increasing the number of teachers of color. For example:

  • A million veteran teachers are nearing retirement, yet many school districts have difficulties recruiting and retaining teachers. According to the National Education Association, 20 percent of all new hires leave the classroom within three years. In urban districts, the numbers are worse; close to 50 percent of newcomers leave within their first five years.
  • Poor children are the most likely to be taught by the newest and least-qualified teachers. A 2003 study by the Texas State Board for Educator Certification, for instance, found that schools with a majority of black students had four times as many uncertified teachers in English and math than schools with few blacks.
  • While students of color make up about 40 percent of public school enrollment, only 16 percent of public school teachers are teachers of color. An estimated 38 percent of public schools did not have a single teacher of color in the 1999-2000 school year, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. Yes, white teachers can successfully teach students from other racial and ethnic groups. But if students rarely — if ever — see a teacher of color, or if teachers of color feel isolated and/or burdened by being “the only” in their schools, educational quality suffers.

The ability to solve these “big picture” issues is directly tied to how we define and foster quality teaching.

Defining ‘Quality’

NCLB formally defines a highly qualified teacher as someone who has a certificate to teach in the area he or she is teaching. In practice, the federal law’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements define a quality teacher as someone who can prep students to score well on standardized tests. In some cases, this means unquestioningly adhering to a scripted curriculum. In others it means substantially altering the curriculum to prepare for tests that are a flawed measurement of a narrow set of skills and that discriminate against students on the basis of language and culture. Many fine teachers have left the classroom rather than face such pressures at a time of dwindling resources and growing class sizes.

Clearly, academic credentials and formal teacher certification are important parts of professional preparation, especially when they include programs such as Center X at UCLA, founded on an understanding of the inherent link between social justice and improved urban education (see p. 16). But academic credentials alone cannot guarantee high-quality instruction.

Some teachers who meet the NCLB’s definition of highly qualified have low expectations of their students and racist or class-biased attitudes toward students’ families and communities. Some use teaching methods that bore students, that don’t connect to or respect students’ lives, and that fail to encourage students to think critically about important issues.

In its 20 years of advocating for equity and excellence in education, Rethinking Schools has promoted a vision of quality teaching based on what we call social justice teaching. This vision, first articulated in the introduction to Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. 1, urges teachers to pursue instructional practice that is:

  • Grounded in the lives of our students 
  • Critical 
  • Multicultural, anti-racist, pro-justice 
  • Participatory, experiential 
  • Hopeful, visionary
  • Activist
  • Academically rigorous
  • Culturally and linguistically sensitive

These characteristics reflect an appreciation for the social dimensions of teaching that are too often absent from discussions of teacher quality. Returning to these principles of social justice teaching are essential if we are to refocus the conversation and ensure it is grounded in classroom practice.

Creating Space to Foster Quality

One of the most pressing issues for teachers is time. A high school teacher with five classes of 40 students cannot adequately respond to student papers. An elementary teacher who has little planning time — perhaps only 45 minutes per week — cannot do a quality job. These conditions undermine quality teaching and encourage teachers to leave the profession.

Educator John Dewey once wrote that “the fundamental trouble” in education is a “lack of conversation.” Such “conversation” implies thoughtful dialogue. We need to create the institutional spaces where in-depth reflection and discussion about good teaching take place on a regular basis. To do so, we need equitable and adequate school funding, smaller class sizes, mentoring programs for new teachers, in-depth staff inservice, and time for serious assessment of student work and progress. In elementary schools there need to be art, music, and physical education specialists instructing children in these important subjects. We must also address the problem of low pay that deters people from entering and/or staying in teaching.

But even without a significant increase in resources, schools of education, state departments of education, districts, individual schools, teacher unions, and independent groups of teacher activists all could take immediate steps to improve teacher quality.

Schools of Education and Unions

Teacher education programs can equip prospective teachers with a vision of what’s possible as well as with the tools to dismantle the unjust. Schools of education can foster collaborative communities, where students develop the habit of working together in democratic settings to create good curriculum and address difficult problems. Center X at UCLA, for instance, has decided to partner with low-performing schools, despite reservations about the scripted programs in those schools. As founder Jeannie Oakes says, “We have tried to figure out how you can have creative and constructive resistance and how you can layer in your knowledge . . . to try to craft something that has integrity and matches what we know about learning.”

Nurturing new educators in resistance and modeling the kind of pedagogy that student teachers should practice in their own placements encourages new teachers to talk back to inequality instead of quietly melting into the system. Schools of education can also enhance quality by providing ongoing support for their graduates — whether through collaborations with district and union mentoring programs, or through independent social justice teacher organizations (see article p. 11).

Teacher unions also can provide leadership. They are ideally situated to sponsor curriculum libraries, ongoing seminars, and teacher work groups. They can also be a forum for teachers to discuss how to address and resist federal and district mandates that negatively impact teaching. Too often teachers rely solely on school districts to design curriculum and strategy workshops, but teacher unions could create their own collaborative communities of study and see their missions as developing an expanded professional capacity and sense of responsibility among their members. Twenty years ago, to cite one example, the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers took another angle on working for teacher quality and initiated a Peer Assistance and Evaluation program in collaboration with the administration (see article p. 30.)

Schools, Districts and Teachers

School districts and individual schools must provide ongoing, embedded professional development and move beyond episodic visits of consultants and “teacher-proof” programs. School districts need to take a leading role in facilitating processes where teachers can share their expertise through districtwide curriculum conferences, ongoing classes, mentoring programs, and inservices that model outstanding teacher practices.

As Deborah Meier points out in her interview with Catherine Capellaro, (see p. 23), a school’s culture can be the best teacher. If schools want to encourage students to become intellectuals and “citizens of the world,” they need to provide time for teachers to work on their craft instead of asking them to deliver packaged curriculum.

Some teachers, meanwhile, are taking matters into their own hands and creating social justice teacher groups (see article p. 11). Some of these organizations sponsor study groups on social or curricular issues, some hold curriculum fairs or “teaching for social justice” conferences, some maintain listservs, some organize against testing or military recruitment abuses. Their work is another manifestation of grassroots teacher quality work — activist, hopeful, creative.

Beyond ‘Silver Bullets’

A number of the changes outlined above can be implemented even within our current and completely inadequate levels of school funding. But all of the changes require a radical shift in thinking and an acknowledgement that the knowledge and leadership of classroom teachers are the bedrock of improved teacher quality.

In the long run, addressing the crisis in teacher quality requires a multi-faceted mobilization that demands adequate state and federal resources for our public schools. To be most effective, this mobilization must include teacher unions, parents, and community organizations in alliance with local school boards and district administrators.

Such efforts to forge alliances and secure adequate funding are not utopian dreams. State-by-state campaigns for funding reform have won important victories. In New Jersey, for example, the Abbott decisions have led to a sizeable increase in funds for previously disenfranchised schools. In other states, class size has been reduced. Wisconsin’s SAGE program, for example, has helped lower the student/teacher ratio in kindergarten through third grade to 15:1. And in some local districts, such as Rochester, N.Y., and Denver, there have been significant increases in local funding for innovative, union-initiated programs.

Improving teacher quality is key to building a better public school system. But it is not a matter of exhorting educators to do more with less, securing more teacher-proof curricula, or making test-driven threats. It’s a matter of reform grounded  in the classroom, of respect for teaching as a profession, of a broader vision of social justice, and of improved organizing and collaboration.

All of us — teachers, parents, and union, community and school leaders — have a role to play.