States Look to Raise Standards for New Teachers

David Rock, dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi, is hoping a new scholarship will convince top students to become teachers. Several states are also looking at ways to improve teacher quality. (Courtesy, The University of Mississippi)

David Rock wanted to be a teacher when he graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1987 with a math degree. But poor starting salaries for educators and the dim view of the profession held by his friends and parents convinced him to take a job in defense contracting instead.

“The perception was you didn’t go to college to become a teacher,” Rock said. He’s trying to change that now as dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi.

In collaboration with Mississippi State University, Rock’s college has created the Mississippi Excellence in Teaching program, which is funded by a $13 million grant from the Robert M Hearin Support Foundation and grants full scholarships to 20 top incoming students at each college who agree to teach for five years in Mississippi after graduation.

That’s three years longer than the national Teach for America program and the similar Mississippi Teacher Corps require of the top grads they recruit and train to teach in some of the state’s poorest schools.

“We know that if we can get them to stay for five years, we have a better chance to retain them in the profession,” Rock said.

While much of the conversation in recent years about improving education has focused on the performance of teachers in the classroom, efforts in Mississippi and elsewhere reflect a new emphasis on improving the quality of future teachers and keeping the good ones in the profession.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is pushing the state to fund a program similar to Rock’s, but for more students. Bryant, a Republican, has also challenged public colleges to “raise the bar” for new teachers by increasing entrance standards for education programs and giving top students an incentive to enter the profession.

New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Delaware’s Jack Markell, both Democratic governors, have also called for toughening admissions standards for education programs. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, wants to greatly expand a program that reimburses tuition to top education graduates who commit to teaching in the state for five years.

Improving the Pipeline

Starting Teacher Salary

Those proposals come at the same time diverse education leaders are focusing on ways to improve the teacher-production pipeline. Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers president, and Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City Schools, have eachproposed a bar-like exam for teachers, akin to what lawyers take.

The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation released a draft of new standards in February that would require an average 3.0 grade point average for each class of incoming students at education programs as well as an average score in the top third percentile on the ACT, SAT or GRE entrance exams.

Meanwhile, 25 states have signed on to a plan by the Council of Chief State School Officers to raise standards for teacher preparation programs and hold them accountable for the performance of teachers they produce.

Advocates of higher standards for teachers point to foreign countries, such as Finland, where entrance to teaching programs is more selective than law or medicine, and the academic performance of its students regularly ranks among the top countries in the developed world.

Concerns About Changes

Some, however, question how realistic such a standard would be in the United States. Finland, for example, subsidizes a master’s degree in education for all its teachers. But Finland has a population of just over 5 million, more than 60 times smaller than the U.S.

Others worry that a growing reliance on standardized tests for admissions to teaching programs could make teacher pools even less diverse. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education estimates that students in education programs are 82 percent white.

Tougher standards could also mean fewer students enter teaching. But Sandi Jacobs, vice president at the National Council on Teacher Quality, said that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Her organization, which supports raising standards, has found that many states already have a glut of teachers in some areas like elementary education, even as they struggle to find teachers for other areas, such as science and math.

Jacobs is involved in the organization’s effort to rank teaching programs, based on admissions standards, curriculum and student surveys, among other factors. She said education programs often stand out at universities for the comparative ease of their requirements.

“We’ve seen institutions across the country where the education program is the only program at the university that doesn’t require the GRE,” she said.

A recent report, however, by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education disputes the perception of lax standards at education programs, noting that the average grades for incoming education students far exceed minimum requirements at most programs. The average GPA for incoming education students is more than 3.2, according to the association.

Boosting Teacher Pay

Colleges in Mississippi have been resistant to Gov. Bryant’s plan, but he said that failure to improve the state’s educational system, which ranks among the worst in the country, would be a disaster for the future of the state. Even supporters of his plan, though, question whether the quality of incoming teachers can be greatly improved without increasing teacher pay.

Rock, the University of Mississippi dean, said he worries that top students with an interest in teaching will continue to make the same decision he made when he graduated from college.

“It’s hard when someone offers you twice the salary,” he said.

In Iowa, Branstad’s call for incentives for top graduates is part of a larger plan to boost starting salaries for teachers and provide career opportunities that allow them to assume leadership roles and make more money, while remaining in the classroom. The incentives have survived different versions of the proposal in Iowa’s House and Senate, but the chambers are divided on how much to increase teacher pay and whether to make taking the career paths mandatory.

Delaware’s Markell is focused on providing incentives for teachers in harder-to-fill subjects and is pushing to pay better-performing teachers more. But he says it’s just as important to ensure that teachers feel like they have a voice in school management and institutional support.

“All of us want to work in organizations that are functional,” he said.

Markell also said that improving the quality of incoming teachers doesn’t necessarily require additional spending or legislation. Education programs could do a better job recruiting incoming students who are still deciding on a major, for example, or encouraging students in math and science to double-major in education, he said.

“This is as much about a change in practice as legislation,” he said.

The goal of improving teacher quality is particularly appealing, he said, because in a state the size of Delaware with fewer than 1 million residents, adding 100 to 200 highly qualified teachers doesn’t require a tremendous investment and is a realistic goal. “This is something we can get our arms around,” he said. “This is not a discussion in the abstract.”

That’s the hope in Mississippi. Even in the absence of funding from the state, the joint program between the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State is expected to produce 160 highly qualified math and English teachers over a five-year span.

Rock said he’s optimistic that the influx of talent — the program has already received applications from all over the country — will have an impact across the state. If it’s successful, he hopes it will serve as an example elsewhere.

“The bottom line is we need to make the teaching profession more prestigious,” he said. “I hope to see more programs like this.”


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