Equal Access to Quality Teachers – Done Right

A decade ago, Congress urged states to eliminate the disparity that left low-income students without a highly qualified teacher.  The feds think holding a degree, a teaching license and a background in the subject being taught is enough to be “highly qualified.”  However, being highly qualified does not equate to actual effectiveness in teaching.  To know if a teacher is effective at teaching students will require measuring the student progress attributable to the teachers’ influence.

Most parents and taxpayers think the central purpose of public schools is to prepare children, at least part way, with the competence to earn a living and to fulfil their civic duties.  Teacher effectiveness has a strong bearing on students’ completion of high school coursework.  Post-secondary schools are available to complete students’ education.  They depend on the readiness high schools give students.

Mastery of high school subjects is no longer enough to earn a good living, but it equips the student for post-secondary coursework.  When a high school student is “graduated” but is not ready for post-secondary coursework, the high school system has failed the student, the parents, the taxpayer, and other graduates who expect employers and colleges to treat their ”graduation” as a meaningful credential.  Unfortunately, just 43% of SAT takers are adequately prepared for college course work.

A high incidence of graduates who are unprepared for college is a clear sign of teacher ineffectiveness.  Students should not have to wait 12 years to discover through real-world rejection by employers and colleges that their teachers have been ineffective and that their high school has deceived them.

Effectiveness is a subject that the education establishment is unwilling to tackle.  Unions measure teacher quality by the length of time a teacher has paid union dues.  Seniority, not effectiveness, dictates who gets hired and laid-off.  The unions demand the job protections of early tenure, they strenuously resist efforts to remove incompetent teachers, they refuse to include student performance in measures of teachers’ performance, and they behave as if the central purpose of public schools is to provide unionized jobs.

Resistance to student performance as a central measure of effectiveness is difficult to understand.  If a teacher’s performance were gauged largely by how much he or she improved student performance (i.e. teaching effectiveness), new avenues for progress would open.  It would evoke stronger taxpayer support for performance-based pay closer to other professions.  It would improve the incentive for the best-performing college graduates to enter teaching.  It would improve the public stature and respect accorded teachers.  And, of course the teacher workforce would improve for the benefit of all students.

Meanwhile, Congress and the Department of Education are going through the motions again.  With enough money they can incent some highly qualified teachers to move to low income schools.  But in choosing to fix the disparity in quality of teachers assigned to low income students, they have chosen to focus on a lesser problem.  They are ignoring the chance to hike teacher effectiveness in all classrooms.  “Highly qualified” is politically correct and focused on potential not on actual performance.  By choosing a standard of “highly effective,” Congress could score an immense win for children and taxpayers.

Alan Daley is a retired businessman who writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research