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Opinion: Let's reframe the teacher-quality debate

Kristin Klopfenstein is the executive director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado.

Economists, of which I am one, generally believe that schools would improve rapidly if teachers didn’t get raises, or even got fired, when their students performed poorly. Another theory is that schools will improve if they have to compete with neighboring schools for money and students. The underlying assumption behind both beliefs is that teachers need an external motivation – salary or competition–to do their jobs well.

I want to believe that educators who know what they are supposed to do and how to do it generally will. In other words, I’d like to think that the fundamental challenge for teachers is not one of motivation, but one of knowledge and skill–the how to do it. This difference has the potential to totally change the tenor of the education reform debate. When people suspect that students are struggling because teachers are choosing not to be their best, it fosters an adversarial mentality between teachers and everybody else who cares about education. When we believe that teachers are generally doing their best but that they don’t always have the right mix of skills to bring every student along, then we’re all on the same team again.

Some recent high-quality research reframes the issue along the lines I’m suggesting by asking whether student success is more a function of teacher motivation or of knowledge and skills. In a randomized control trial, here, the gold standard of scientific research, Harvard economist Roland Fryer found no evidence that paying teachers for higher performance in fact raises student test scores. In related work, here, he found that student achievement doesn’t improve in response to direct payments either, but students do respond to increased services designed to raise their achievement. Knowledge and skills, it seems, trump the great motivator money.

A focus on teacher skills rather than motivation

The most compelling explanation for this finding is that students don’t struggle because their teachers don’t care, but because their teachers don’t have the skills to reach them. I love what Robyn Jackson has to say on this topic in her book Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching: When teachers have low expectations for their students, it says more about their confidence in their own ability to reach those students than about the students themselves. In other words, when a teacher thinks “that student is never going to learn to read,” she is really thinking, “I don’t know how to teach that student to read.”

So what skills does the teacher need and how does she get them? One example of a skill gap arises from cultural differences between the increasingly diverse student bodies in American schools and the largely white, suburban-raised teaching force. Colleges of education are addressing this by exposing teacher candidates to as diverse an array of students as possible and by including issues pertaining to the achievement gap in the teacher preparation curriculum. But such training can’t end when beginning teachers leave the Ivory Tower. Professional development, through in-class coaching and similarly intensive hands-on, ongoing training is critical to keep skills current and to bring along teachers already in the field. Given the substantial expense involved in bringing in outside trainers, teacher peers are a cost-effective yet powerful internal resource. Teaching needs to go from an individual to a team endeavor with professional educators collaborating, observing, and critiquing one another in an effort to become the best that they can be.

This is not to say that there is no role for pay differentials in education. Some teachers are willing to teach the most challenging students, or to work in miserable conditions, and they should be compensated for that. Economists call this “compensating wage differentials.” Even among teachers with the same good intentions, some work harder than others and should be rewarded through a career ladder that allows them to advance while maintaining a connection with students rather than moving into administration. But if teachers are, on average, doing the best they can with what they have to work with, as Fryer’s work suggests, then they need structural supports, not just carrots and sticks.

No one wants to fail

Incentives do matter. But I have yet to hear of a teacher who went into the profession for the money, and indeed, teachers consistently report that they would rather have improved working conditions (meaning greater respect and empowerment from administrators) than higher pay. The people who go into teaching are not, by and large, indifferent workers plugging part A into part C along a fast-moving factory line. People go into teaching because they want to make a difference, as evidenced by the proliferation of alternative certification programs allowing mid-career professionals to enter teaching, often at a substantially reduced salary. And no one entering any profession, including teaching, wants to fail in his work.

One fundamental assumption of economics is that markets only work when all participants have perfect information. In other words, competition among schools only makes students better off when administrators and teachers know how to improve their product. Colorado is paying attention to the potential failure of the perfect information assumption in recent legislation designed to improve educators’ understanding of building- and district-level trends. The Unified Improvement Planning process, which is required of all schools for the first time this academic year, requires administrators to examine their recent student data and set deliberate goals based on what they find there.

The key to the success of the Unified Improvement Plans is that administrators and teacher leaders take them seriously and learn from them. If this happens, student success should improve as a result. But if the Plans become nothing more than a bureaucratic exercise, students will be no better off, and possibly worse off, by the increase in paperwork. In the end, though, it will be up to the schools to make the best use of the UIP process. As I’ve told many a college freshman, “College is what you make of it.” I think UIPs are, too.

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