Millions In Grants Have Gone to Teacher Preparation. What's Needed Now?

photo:  iofoto/shutterstock

photo:  iofoto/shutterstock

It is well known that one of the keys to a high-quality education system are excellent teachers. Research has consistently identified effective teachers as the most important school-related factor influencing student achievement. Recognizing this, education reform funders have spent many millions of dollars supporting new teacher preparation programs and trying to strengthen existing ones.

A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) acknowledges that some changes have taken place, but that much work remains to be done. The report's conclusions are summarized in the title: "America Needs More Teachers of Color and a More Selective Teaching Profession." The report's authors argue that it is critical for the U.S. not only to diversify the ranks of its K-12 teachers, but also to increase the selectivity of teacher preparation programs, most of which are housed in universities.

The report further argues that these goals are not mutually exclusive, countering claims by some that toughening admissions standards for teacher preparation programs will lead to a less diverse teacher workforce, as many students of color score lower on standardized assessments and licensure tests.

Funders have turned their attention to increasing the diversity of the teacher workforce, and for good reason. A growing share of the nation's K-12 public school students are children of color. The NewSchools Venture Fund reported that about 60 percent of American public school students are African American or Hispanic, but that they are likely to be taught in schools staffed by teachers and led by principals who do not look like them. 

Greater diversity among teachers is critical for the success of students of color. Teachers of color are more likely to understand the barriers these students confront, provide a more welcoming face in schools, and to serve as role models. In addition, studies suggest that these teachers hold more favorable perceptions of students of color, both in terms of academics and behavior. African American teachers are less likely to perceive African American students as disruptive and more likely to hold high academic expectations for them. Students of color are suspended or expelled from school at higher rates than their white counterparts and are more likely to be placed in special education—phenomena that some advocates have blamed in part on the lack of diversity among the nation's teachers.

Hiring and recruitment by themselves are not the solutions. As a joint Brookings Institution-National Center for Teacher Quality report concluded in 2016, "We simply cannot hire our way to a more diverse teacher workforce. While many public schools acknowledge a need for greater diversity and a desire to do better, few have a comprehensive strategy for getting there."

Funders have helped, and we've written about some of those programs here. A better prepared and more diverse teacher workforce is a top priority for the Gates Foundation, which is looking for teacher preparation channels beyond the traditional university route. A Kellogg Foundation-backed effort helps male college graduates of color become paraprofessionals as a step toward full teacher certification. In another example, Texas philanthropist and grocery magnate Charles Henry Butt wants a larger, more diverse teaching force in his state. Some recipients under his initiative plan to focus on creating more bilingual education teachers— vital in a state with a large English learner population.

But the CAP report argues not only for more diversity, but also for a more selective teaching profession that attracts more of our best and brightest. Authors Lisette Partelow, Angie Spong, Catherine Brown and Stephanie Johnson drew upon international comparisons of academic achievement as measured by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) to bolster their argument for a more selective teacher profession. They note that countries that score higher than the U.S. in reading, mathematics and science, such as Finland, South Korea, Canada and Japan, all focus on teacher quality, which in turn affects the quality of classroom instruction.

Historically, the average SAT scores of students entering the education profession in the U.S. have been lower than for students entering other professions, such as business and engineering. In addition, the report notes that the average minimum GPA requirement for entry into a teacher preparation program was only 2.6 on a four-point scale. A 2014 NCTQ evaluation of teacher preparation programs gave low ratings to most of them.

These and other findings have fueled the popularity of alternative approaches for training teachers. Organizations such as Teach For America and the Broad Academy have received millions in funder support and have provided alternatives to the traditional university route for training teachers and school leaders. But critics contend that these programs spend too little time on training and overemphasize "disruptive" reform practices that often lack a track record of success.

Calls to make teacher preparation programs more selective through higher GPAs and higher test scores have been met by skeptics, who worry that such changes could actually harm efforts to increase diversity. The CAP report, however, provides evidence that increasing selectivity does not come at the expense of diversity. Rather, the authors found that states that increased the selectivity of entrance exam scores for teacher preparation programs actually saw increases in the diversity of undergraduates pursuing education degrees. They concluded that increasing selectivity and diversity are not incompatible goals.

While funders have written millions in checks for programs to increase teacher diversity and provide alternative forms of teacher preparation, there has been less emphasis on projects to increase the rigor and selectivity of teacher preparation. A notable exception, however, is the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which, in 2015, announced plans to launch its Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning. The new academy will operate in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), offering master's degrees in teaching and school leadership, and serving as a laboratory for studying best practices in teacher preparation.

The Wilson Foundation estimates the cost of the new academy to be between $30 million and $35 million. It reported raising $17 million from a variety of individual donors and funders, including Amgen Foundation, the Bezos Family Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Gates Foundation.

Clearly, there is plenty more to be done, especially on the selectivity side. The CAP report should calm fears that increased selectivity will undermine work that is already underway to improve diversity. As always, we will keep close watch on future initiatives on the teacher preparation front.