Journal Issue: Excellence in the Classroom Volume 17 Number 1 Spring 2007
Although almost everyone agrees that school reforms are unlikely to improve student performance if they do not directly affect what happens in the classroom, to date there is strikingly little evidence to indicate exactly which policies are most likely to enhance teaching, and thus student learning. But research does point toward some approaches as more effective than others, and recent changes in local and federal policy will make it possible to learn more about teacher policy more quickly than has yet been possible.
First, research has made clear the shortcomings in teacher pay structures. Although some districts offer higher compensation for particular fields of specialization, especially special education, math, and science, that practice is not the norm. In most districts, all teachers in all schools are generally subject to the same salary schedule, leaving some fields and regions with teacher shortages, others with surpluses. A good short-term solution to these staffing problems may be to target large pay incentives for highly effective teachers in hard-to-staff subject areas or less desirable schools. But in the long run, it may be more productive—though expensive—to address working conditions directly by reducing class sizes, increasing release time for planning, providing instructional supports such as coaches, and ameliorating adverse conditions such as crime and dilapidated buildings.9 Incorporating elements of pay for performance into salary structures is another reform with much theoretical appeal. Although experience with such policies has generated mixed results on student outcomes, much could be learned from carefully designed and implemented pilot programs.
Teacher preparation and certification is a second policy area that warrants further consideration and potential reform. The paucity of evidence on the effects of different elements of states’ certification requirements is no reason to eliminate those requirements. Not knowing what effect they have is not the same as knowing that they have no, or even a negative, effect. In the absence of solid evidence, policy must be based on common sense and professional consensus. One thing that researchers have definitively established is that entry requirements strongly affect the pool of people interested in teaching. Policies that have loosened entry requirements have not only dramatically increased the number of people interested in teaching but also raised their average academic performance. It is thus crucial to evaluate entry requirements closely, especially in communities that have had trouble attracting qualified teachers.
Reform in ongoing teacher education is a third area worth pursuing. Although professional development can, in theory, benefit schools and districts, so far the nation has little to show for its substantial investment in this area. As Heather Hill points out, hours spent in general and unspecified professional development do not improve instruction. Instead, the work must be linked to the curriculum, have substantive content, and be sustained over time. Coaching and release time for directed collaboration among teachers are both promising forms of professional development.
Research has also uncovered some structural impediments to improving the teacher workforce. In particular, given how hard it is to identify good teachers, the constraints that keep schools from removing poorly performing teachers likely hurt students. Easing these restrictions may have large payoffs when an ample supply of potential replacements is available, especially if schools and districts can also offer teachers incentives to improve student learning. In addition, cumbersome bureaucracies keep many large urban districts from adjusting to changing needs or even making predictable hires in a timely manner. As an example, streamlining the process so that these districts could hire teachers earlier in the year could help increase supply.
Finally, the papers in this volume demonstrate that strengthening the teacher workforce is not a one-time policy initiative. The effort must be ongoing—for schools, districts, states, and even the federal government. The introduction of assessment-based accountability systems over the past two decades has yielded a rich harvest of data that can help practitioners and policymakers assess the effectiveness of policy initiatives, especially those that are implemented with an eye toward careful evaluation. Education policy in individual districts, and in the nation as a whole, would be well served if reform initiatives were designed from the outset with credible evaluation elements, especially when it comes to collecting data about how the reform affects students facing various challenges. Without careful evaluation, the nation will continue to commit enormous public resources to one of society’s most important investments without any real analytic support.
Researchers have begun to learn more about potentially effective interventions in teacher labor markets, many of which are described in the articles that follow. But much work remains. That research has not yet unlocked the "secret" of something as complicated as effective classroom teaching should be neither surprising nor discouraging. Our aim, in this volume, is to contribute to the continuing search for practical policy steps to improve teaching—the single most important element in student achievement—especially for children facing the greatest barriers.