Teacher quality matters

If improving teacher quality is the number one (hat tip Lee Rakes) way to improve education, what are some ways districts and states can do that? I wish I had the magic answer, but I do think we have some examples for the right direction.

1. Support beginning teachers better. Mentor teachers are a start but not enough. One year my dad worked in a quasi-administrative position as a support for first year teachers in his district. The situation was ideal for those teachers because he was in a solely supportive role, not evaluative. He also observed experienced teachers who excelled in challenging situations the first year teachers were having so that he could share ideas. Since his position was districtwide, he facilitated conversations between teachers in different schools. I would take this idea and expand it to include the first three years of teaching. The position could be full or part-time for a master teacher, depending on the size of the district.

2. Provide more time for working collaboratively. Teaching in isolation can lead to burn-out and lack of growth. Working as teams, either as grade levels in elementary school or middle school or as content areas in high school, can help the more inexperienced teachers learn, invigorate the veterans and improve everyone. Time for cross-team work such as interschool or across the grades needs to increase also. Parents at my kids’ elementary school were surprised to learn that teachers only met with their counterparts at the other elementary schools twice a year and on specific topics. A subject such as math may not be addressed formally at all in a year. I, personally, thought the district was generous in giving them two times to meet—an obvious difference in perspective from an educational point of view than a business point of view.

3. Require meaningful professional development. I’ve been to workshops, conferences, classes and meetings that have made me a better teacher and ones that have been a waste of time. Targeted professional development though is necessary for any profession, including teaching. One of the reasons I chose my children’s pediatric group was that the doctors attended weekly lectures at Children’s Hospital. Doctors also must keep up by reading journals and attending lectures and conferences. I expect educators to do the same.

4. Change student teaching structure. Student teaching should be a one-year, paid internship for those who have already completed their degree. Schools have a commitment to student teachers and I like that my children’s pediatric group has residents, but as a parent I don’t like student teachers. They are put in charge of the class too quickly and make transitions hard on the younger kids. A one-year internship would give them a better feel for teaching in a more gradual manner. Teaching is a challenge; we should provide support instead of taking the “throw them in and see who makes it” approach.

5. Increase teacher pay. This is a capitalistic economy. To get a stronger teaching pool, we need to increase the pay. I’m not talking about the exceptions or individuals but about the profession as a whole. This may not be the only change needed, as Bill Gates said on Fareed Zakaria’s show last Sunday, but it is certainly one of them.

6. Increase difficulty level of teacher education schools. This is a whole area in itself, but if we are going to work on increasing teacher pay and making the profession more respected, the typical teacher ed program can NOT be the easiest school at the university. Period. Requiring teachers to act like professionals by keeping up with education research starts in teacher ed programs. The direction of education is often decided by politicians and “policy experts.” Too many teachers stay out of the discussions. Besides the theory, ed schools need to have their students involved in schools early, not wait until student teaching. (See posts Get them into the classrooms, Lessons from med school)

7. Change the salary schedule and change to a system in which districts can fire the teachers who have quit teaching.

Improving teacher quality and teacher ed schools is one of my passions. I would love to hear other ideas.

Change the salary schedule!

Christian Science Monitor has an article out on changing the structure of teacher pay (hat tip Abner Oakes tweet), which discusses giving bonuses for various incentives such as improving student performance or working at a high-poverty school. I have some more ideas.

First, as long as districts follow a salary schedule, teachers should get one-for-one credit for teaching in other districts; i.e., they should be given credit for teaching five years if they have taught five years when being hired at a different school district. Not giving one-for-one credit unfairly eliminates them from changing districts—they get “locked in” to a particular district after teaching for only a few years since they would have to take a pay cut to move to a different district. This elimination of competition between districts is bad for teachers. Only the wealthiest districts currently can lure experienced teachers by giving one-for-one credit since most districts do not. Let’s even that playing field.

Second, tenure needs to be much, much, MUCH! harder to get. It should not be automatic but should be something to work toward like at the college level. Professors apply for tenure going through an arduous process. I recommend the same for K-12 teachers.

Third, first year teachers should have a reduced teaching load to go with their lower salary. (I’ll expand on this idea in a post later this week.) As they gain experience and ability, they should gain responsibility, recognition and salary.

Fourth, non-performing teachers should be fired.

A more flexible salary schedule with teachers applying to move to different teacher levels equivalent to college’s instructor, assistant professor, associate professor and full professor would be a hybrid system between a strict schedule and open negotiation.

Fire those non-performing teachers!

So, should we be able to fire teachers? Of course. I can’t stand the current system and don’t think it helps teachers or students at all.

Focusing on getting rid of teachers in the first three to five years before they’re tenured and no longer able to be fired is counter-productive. This is the time when schools should be doing everything possible to help new teachers—those first few years are tough, tough, tough.

Requiring districts to keep poor teachers is detrimental to students because they are not learning and to teachers because it lowers the professional standards. Having had a math teacher who, literally, sat at his desk day by day and did not teach AT ALL (except the many, many days he was being observed), I feel for kids who have teachers who have quit working. This would absolutely not be allowed in any other profession. Why in teaching?

More help for beginning teachers coupled with the ability to fire truly non-performing teachers would go a long way toward improving learning.

Should teachers go to school?

(photo by dcJohn)

Ladue teachers are going back to school.

❝Ladue, one of the top-performing districts in the state, has recently told its teachers with bachelor's degrees that a master's degree "will be the new standard expected" within four years.❞ (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

The Post article basically says that the teachers aren’t going back to improve their teaching, as “study after study” shows that further education isn’t worth much. Then why would Ladue encourage their teachers to spend their time in class?

❝To the Ladue School District, it's worth their reputation, and the support of voters who may approve or deny tax increases.❞

That seems harsh. Maybe pragmatic?

I had noticed the Ladue outlier in a post on teacher salaries last spring.

I would like to drill deeper into the research on graduate studies since it seems so counter-intuitive to me as both a former teacher and as someone who has looked at a lot of numbers. I have a lot of questions.

Would the research differ if we factored in the type of degree and/or the challenge level?

❝I still see a lot of generalist master's programs that are pretty easy and painless for teachers to get through," Hausfather [dean of education at Maryville University] said. "It's still hard to push programs that push people. They just want to get a degree and a pay raise.❞ (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

❝They [Goldhaber and Brewer (1996) also found that, although advanced degrees in general were not associated with higher student achievement, an advanced degree that was specific to the subject area that a teacher taught was associated with higher achievement.❞ (Center for Public Education)

Would the research differ if we isolated certain age levels or certain subject areas?

❝Goldhaber and Brewer (1996) found that the presence of teachers with at least a major in their subject area was the most reliable predictor of student achievement scores in math and science.❞ (Center for Public Education)

What long-term effects does being perceived as more professional have on the teaching profession?

This seems to be the affect Ladue is going for. I’m not sure how it can be measured. Have they done surveys?

Yikes, the teachers aren't certified

I have a friend who insists that research shows that teacher certification means nothing. He's not the only one.

I thought I would throw out there the correlation numbers for St. Louis County school districts between the certification rate and the median math score on the Terra Nova for third graders: .72 (excluding Special School district).

Occasionally districts will hire someone who will finish certification within a specified time frame because they believe that teacher is an excellent choice. This may especially be true in some of the more specialized areas. My theory is that the difference between 100 percent certification and 99.4 isn't much. When I sorted by certification percentage and only checked the correlation of districts below 99 percent, the number decreased slightly to .70. However, by using only the districts below 98 percent, it increased to .76. It stayed the same for under 97 percent

The highest correlation numbers I found were when sorting for median score and then only using the lower numbers.

So schools with a lower median Terra Nova math score in third grade highly correlated with certification rates. Maybe some time I'll run more numbers to see if this holds up both with other grades and other content areas.

Correlation numbers are far from conclusive but do show an area in which to do more precise research. Does this only work in an area with competing districts? Within a larger district? Over an entire state? What areas are the non "highly qualified" teachers teaching in? Enquiring minds want to know.

(Numbers from DESE)

What do teachers make anyway?

Source: DESE

I assumed that Clayton would be the top-paying district in the county, and I was correct. The average is high because the district prioritizes experience and advanced eduction. The average number of years teaching is 15.6; while Webster Groves, the next highest, is 14.7—almost a year less.

Clayton, Brentwood and Kirkwood all have over 80 percent of teachers with at least a master's degree. They are also the highest paying districts. This is no coincidence as I found a .76 correlation between average salary and percent with a master's. This is much higher than the still statistically significant .40 correlation between average salary and average number of years teaching.

At a future date I will compare the percent with a master's to quality of schools because in looking at it, that seems to be a pretty good indicator, with Ladue as a weird outlier. (What's up with Ladue only having 50 percent of its teachers with a master's? They're not young (14.1). This deserves further research.)

Teachers can do research too!

The St. Louis Post profiled an elementary teacher in the beleaguered city school system.

❝Johnson labored at night and through winter and summer breaks for three years, and the product of that passion is a supplemental learning project. It represents one teacher's homegrown effort to solve one classroom's deficiencies, with the hope of later helping to turn around an entire district.❞

The program works by having students progress through levels as they learn their basic math facts down cold.

❝When a master steps to the podium, there's good reason that mesmerized classmates congregate at the podium like mere mortals gathering at the cage while Albert Pujols takes batting practice:

A master can write the answers to 100 multiplication questions in 110 seconds.❞

It sounds like a personalized version of the Fastt Math that is becoming popular in suburban districts.

I want to highlight one of the problems with the attitude of the city school district.

❝Though district officials subscribe to the theory that the achievement gap needs to be erased one classroom at a time, they say educational practices must first undergo rigorous research and academic review.

"He knows what works for him. That's not to say he doesn't have a program that works well for his students. But he doesn't have the research base yet to implement what he is doing on a larger scale," said William Parker, an assistant superintendent for elementary education.❞

I understand wanting to use research-based curriculum changes, but the district is essentially telling its teachers that no matter how hard they work and how effective they are since they can't provide the large research basis that commercial suppliers can, they are not as important. A better response would be to work with him to run a larger pilot study and to help publish. Working with teachers as collaborators instead of just implementers of off-the-shelf but "researched" curriculum would go a long way toward improving working conditions.

❝When his wife, Cathy, asks why Johnson remains in the city when he "could be making $10,000 more to work in the county" his response is uniform. And it starts with those students who hail, as he did, from a single-parent home absent a father.❞

While the city schools don't pay that much less than the county, an effective African-American male elementary teacher is highly recruitable. The city shouldn't rely on his desire to help kids from single-parent homes and should provide the supportive environment that teachers like him need, including helping them know how to share their work with others.

Length of contract affects salary

When I first read Education Gadfly's post critiquing the Quality Counts 2008 report, I was struck by his reference to teachers only working 9 months as I always had to work longer. In looking over Missouri's data, however, I can see the disconnect.

While Mo. teachers ave. 181.49 contract days, St. Louis teachers average 190 contract days with several districts at 195 or above (Mehlville, Brentwood, Lindbergh). In looking through the state numbers, some districts only required 175 or even 174 (!) days. That's as much as a four week difference. Yes, the urban districts pay more, but they also expect more of their teachers. Since Missouri's minimum number of school days is 174, some of the rural districts must not have any or minimal professional development days. I think this needs to be addressed in any minimum salary legislation.

Numbers taken from MSTA Mo. Salary Schedule and Benefits Report

Rhyme or reason to salary schedules?


The St. Louis Post-Dispatch provided an interesting graphic to accompany its Rod Jetton story which gave the district paying the most to beginning teachers and the district paying the least. I had assumed that Clayton would be the highest paying school, but I was wrong. Jennings. The lowest-paying district is Hancock Place. I wasn't surprised there. I ranked all of the districts and could discern no obvious pattern.

I wondered if Jennings was one of those districts that encourages beginning teachers by paying them well but doesn't reward its more experienced and educated teachers, so I also looked at maximum teacher salaries. Nope, Jennings is just a high-paying district.

I wondered if the maximum salary was tied to the median income level of the district. Seemed reasonable that the districts in wealthier areas would pay more. With a correlation number of -.26 though, that's not the case. Other market factors are in play.

The spread between minimum and maximum salaries is important as teachers want to know that their salaries will increase. Quality Counts suggests a ratio of at least 2.0 The St. Louis districts do that to stay competitive even if the rest of the state does not (state average 1.66).

❝In fact, the salaries and career potential for teachers are remarkably flat: The average maximum salary that a teacher can earn is just 1.85 times the salary of a raw entrant, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, based on figures from the 2003-04 school year.❞

To get a better grip on which districts tighten their salary schedules, I ranked them and included whether each district has been named a district of distinction by Missouri based on MAP data.

With Rockwood, Kirkwood and Pattonville the only districts under the 2.0 and on the bottom of the heap, I have to say that the compression ratio isn't the end all although I do think it's important. Studying all the districts of the state might show more of a difference rather than within a region or market area.

I ran some correlation numbers to try to figure out whether the compression ratio is more highly correlated to the maximum salary or the minimum.

Max. salary correlation .73
Min. salary correlation .24

Obviously it is tied to the max salary. Hancock Place did have the highest ratio with a low starting salary and high maximum salary. I was glad to see that the bad press it has received for its low starting salary isn't justified. Most of the time, however, low starting salaries meant little in terms of the ratio.

I doubt few prospective teachers compare salary schedules too closely as long as a district is within the regional norm, but I found it fascinating. Some of my assumptions were challenged, which will encourage me to dig deeper in the future.

Numbers from MSTA's salary schedule report