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

What Is the Problem? The Challenge of Providing Effective Teachers for All Children
Richard J. Murnane Jennifer L. Steele

Summary

Richard Murnane and Jennifer Steele argue that if the United States is to equip its young people with the skills essential in the new economy, high-quality teachers are more important than ever. In recent years, the demand for effective teachers has increased as enrollments have risen, class sizes have fallen, and a large share of the teacher workforce has begun to retire. Women and minorities have more career options than ever before, making it increasingly difficult to attract and retain the many effective teachers who are needed. Moreover, schools are limited in their ability to identify and reward the most effective teachers.

Perhaps the most urgent problem facing American education, say Murnane and Steele, is the unequal distribution of high-quality teachers. Poor children and children of color are disproportionately assigned to teachers with the least preparation and the weakest academic backgrounds. Teacher turnover is high in schools that serve large shares of poor or nonwhite students because the work is difficult, and the teachers who undertake it are often the least equipped to succeed.

Murnane and Steele point out that in response to these challenges, policymakers have proposed a variety of policy instruments to increase the supply of effective teachers and distribute those teachers more equitably across schools. Such proposals include across-the-board pay increases, more flexible pay structures such as pay-for-performance, and reduced restrictions on who is allowed to teach. Several of these proposals are already being implemented, but their effectiveness remains largely unknown. To measure how well these policies attract effective teachers to the profession and to the schools that need them most, rigorous evaluations are essential.

Murnane and Steele also note that policymakers may benefit from looking beyond U.S. borders to understand how teacher labor markets work in other countries. Although policies rooted in one nation’s culture cannot be easily and quickly transplanted into another, it is important to understand what challenges other countries face, what policies they are using, and how well those policies are working to enhance teacher quality and improve student achievement.