Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: Excellence in the Classroom Volume 17 Number 1 Spring 2007

Introducing the Issue
Susanna Loeb Cecilia Elena Rouse Anthony Shorris

Introduction

A high-quality education is critical to the future well-being of a child—and thus also to the nation as a whole. By one estimate, a high school dropout in the United States will earn nearly a quarter of a million dollars less over his lifetime than a high school graduate who completes no further education. He will also contribute $60,000 less in tax revenues. Aggregated over a cohort of eighteen-year-olds who never complete high school, these losses add up to $200 billion.1 Moreover, gaps in the educational achievement of children by race and social class are large and persistent. For example, among eighth graders in 1988, 95 percent from the most advantaged families had received a high school diploma within six years, compared with only 66 percent from the least advantaged families.2 According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 9 percent of black and 13 percent of Hispanic eighth graders perform at or above the proficient level in mathematics, compared with 39 percent of whites.

Concern about the overall quality of U.S. education, and in particular about the troublesome gaps in achievement, has led many policymakers and parents to demand reform of the educational system. But for reform—whether increased education revenues, smaller class sizes, or greater accountability—to make a difference, it must penetrate the classroom and affect the quality of teaching. Indeed teachers are so important that, according to one estimate, a child in poverty who has a good teacher for five years in a row would have learning gains large enough, on average, to close completely the achievement gap with higher-income students.3 Improving the quality of teachers is thus crucial to efforts to raise student achievement and narrow achievement gaps. But schools with high concentrations of black students, Hispanic students, and students in poverty have serious problems in recruiting and retaining effective teachers. According to one study, three times as many black students as white students in New York State had teachers who failed their general knowledge certification exam on their first attempt (21 versus 7 percent).4

But although almost everyone recognizes the importance of effective teachers, it is much less clear how to improve the teaching workforce. One difficulty is the sheer size of that workforce. Teachers make up about 10 percent of all college-educated workers. With more than 40 percent of schools’ operating expenditures going to instructional salaries, even small changes in compensation or in the number of students per teacher can have huge revenue implications. Total spending on teacher salaries in U.S. public schools is more than $160 billion a year.5 Thus, a 5 percent salary increase—$2,338 for an average teacher—would cost taxpayers more than $8 billion a year.6

A second difficulty for schools and districts is how to identify effective teachers. On one level, most people know a good teacher when they see one. As Lee Shulman, president of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, notes (see box 1), good teachers engage the class and motivate student participation. They inspire students to challenge themselves and help them develop values, commitments, and identities. But how districts are to pick out such people before they enter a classroom, or educational institutions are to guide them to reach this ideal, is much less clear. Equally problematic is precisely which qualities of the ideal teacher should form the basis of policy reform.

Nevertheless, researchers have established that carefully designed public policies can strengthen teacher quality. The articles in this volume explore key tools available to policymakers to do just that—from changes in the way teachers are certified, to investments in professional development, to wage policies, to financial and other incentives, to policies that affect unions and collective bargaining. The volume also examines the special challenges facing rural and urban districts and synthesizes relevant experiences from other developed and developing nations.