LeTendre: National Coordination Would Help Improve American Teacher Quality
by Joe Savrock (September 2009)
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Poor children in America’s schools are more likely than poor students in other nations to receive instruction from teachers who are working outside their subject area, according to research conducted by a faculty member and an alumnus of Penn State’s Educational Theory and Policy program.
“This is really the most distressing finding of our work,” says Gerald LeTendre, professor of educational theory and policy. “Living in poverty already puts children at risk for school failure and other nonacademic problems; not having a fully-certified teacher adds yet another obstacle to academic success.”
LeTendre collaborated with Motoko Akiba '01 Ph.D., who is now a faculty member at the University of Missouri–Columbia, to publish a new book titled Improving Teacher Quality: The U.S. Teaching Force in Global Context (Teachers College Press, 2009). The book compares the United States, Japan, Australia, and other nations in their contrasting approaches to improving teacher quality.
The co-authors used data from 15 countries as the basis of their book, which examines teacher quality, working conditions, and professional learning opportunities. They point to a disparity across countries with regard to the preparation of eighth-grade mathematics teachers. In the United States, 70.3% of these teachers have earned a degree in mathematics or mathematics education. In other countries, the percentage is significantly higher—73.6% in Australia, 87.9% in Japan, and an average of 88.9% for twelve other nations.
The co-authors show data reflecting the socioeconomic status (SES) of students who receive instruction from the most-qualified mathematics teachers—those with full certification in mathematics or mathematics education, or those with three or more years of teaching experience. In the U.S., only 52% of low-SES students are taught by the most-qualified teachers, a much lower percentage than in Japan (86.0%), Australia (58.9%), and other countries.
“If schooling is to effectively counter some of the negative impacts of poverty, children need access to high-quality instruction,” says LeTendre. “Teachers teaching outside their field of expertise may do an adequate job in a particular class, but the chances are that they won’t be able to provide the same level of instruction as teachers who are trained in the field.”
The United States has no methodical national or state system for recruiting talented individuals into the teaching profession. Our decentralized system, says LeTendre, falls short of educational systems in other nations in the effort to develop the highest qualified instructors. “This is a major impediment to improving instructional quality,” he says.
“We need to think about a coordinated system of incentives that target promising high school and early college students,” continues LeTendre. “Some studies show that education majors often score much lower on standardized tests than their peers in other fields, and there is significant concern that we need to organize a different model for attracting the best and brightest into teaching.”
Australia, which also has a decentralized education system, offers a viable model—states and territories in that country offer scholarship incentives to students who pursue a teaching career.
“While the U.S., as a nation, values the local control that our highly decentralized system offers, our system severely limits what can be done at the national level to improve teaching.”
As a result of America’s decentralization, support for professional development is fragmented. “Many new teachers fail to receive mentoring or induction training during their first years of service,” says LeTendre. He points to a growing literature that suggests that intensive induction programs for new teachers are critical to teacher retention. “These programs could also set the stage for more systematic development of professional skills over the course of a teacher’s working life,” he says.
“Professional development must be more than a specific number of credits of class work mandated by state legislatures,” he continues. “We need to provide broad national outlines for teacher career development and mastery that can guide states and districts in structuring and monitoring professional development.”
LeTendre acknowledges that teaching has become a more complicated profession. Teachers must process individual education plans and monitor a range of student behaviors. With added demands, teachers are less able to keep up with current research on how best to meet student needs.
“For example, dozens of studies on homework have been published in the last two years alone, yet we provide teachers with little time to stay abreast of current research,” says LeTendre. “A narrow emphasis on mathematics and science, which has dominated the reform debates for the last ten years, ignores the fact that most parents want their child’s teacher to address the child’s social and emotional development.”
LeTendre further states that, “We routinely expect our teachers to be more than just an instructor; and we need to better understand the multiple tasks and roles that teachers undertake each day if we are to truly define what ‘quality’ means and how to achieve it in every classroom in the United States.”