Demographics, Regulation, Assessment: Who Teaches? How Well? How Do We Know?

Like many attempts to make schools better, teacher-education reforms have been complicated by an ill-defined emphasis on accountability-in this case, regulating who enters into the teaching profession and how. In an ongoing analysis, Columbia University professor Linda Darling- Hammond has explored how several intertwined issues affect availability, assessment, and regulation of teachers.

State certification of teachers varies widely, Darling- Hammond notes- not only from state to state, but according to demographic shifts affecting supply and demand. One result is that teachers end up being treated more as tradespeople (from whose lack of training the state protects the public) than as professionals (whose own members confer legitimacy via a recognized body of peers). Whenever demand is high and supply short, ill-qualified candidates are allowed to fill the need (as in the trades, where any handyman can attack your dishwasher)–rather than letting salaries rise to attract new competition for positions (as in the professions, where eye surgeons command top dollar).

In teaching–unlike law, medicine, or architecture–no common standards of excellence have held sway, determined by master practitioners themselves; no year-long supervised internship period for new teachers has been mandatory as it is in most professions. Instead of continually assessing teachers’ demonstrated mastery of what they know and are able to do, the teacher certification process has typically measured course credit hours and checklist-style “field experiences.”

More Teachers Look Toward Retirement

At the same time, demographic, cultural, and economic shifts- the baby boom, the women’s movement, and the recession among them- have markedly affected not only how many students the nation must educate, but who their teachers are. According to Darling-Hammond, today’s public school teacher is typically in her early forties, with close to 20 years of experience. She was senior enough to survive the layoffs of the late 1970’s, but now she is looking toward retirement. Despite pay increases during the 1980’s, her real-dollar pay just barely matches what it was in 1971, and it is about 15 percent less than her experienced counterpart was making in the early 1970’s. And she is likely to be discouraging to potential teachers about the satisfactions of the job: by 1986 fully 31 percent of teachers said they would not choose that career again.

The combination of large numbers of teachers retiring and a decline in the college-age population (exacerbated by a sharp dip in those who choose teaching) presages a looming teacher shortage, Darling-Hammond’s research reveals-one that has already hit cities, Southwestern states, and certain fields everywhere. This shortage is compounded by high turnover among new teachers and complicated by field- specific shortages that often result in teachers leading classes outside their field of preparation. Finally, work conditions, growth opportunities, and teacher autonomy affect a school’s ability to attract good candidates. Teacher shortages in economically troubled areas are far higher than elsewhere; the Coalition’s Pasadena High School loses one third of its teachers yearly, Santa Fe’s Capital High School a quarter.

Supply and Demand: A Vicious Circle

When states react to such dire situations by loosening their standards, Darling-Hammond argues, salaries remain depressed and a vicious circle begins of ill-equipped candidates likely to drop out of unattractive teaching jobs. The solution is not “emergency certification,” she asserts, but a concerted effort by teachers to seize control of their own profession, articulating new standards and participating in the renewal of the teacher pool. Bottom-up school reform plays a key role in this transformation, making the teacher’s job more satisfying and rewarding; so do higher wages and a meaningful career ladder for talented teachers. Darling-Hammond also urges the federal government to provide incentive scholarships for highly qualified teaching students, and she calls on universities to ground their education programs squarely in restructuring schools, providing longer internships and mentoring periods for beginning teachers.

Finally, the effort to assess teacher candidates in more authentic and meaningful ways has begun on several fronts. A 63-member National Board for Professional Teaching Standards was formed in 1987, primarily of classroom teachers. By 1994 that board hopes to engage school districts and teachers in recognizing and rewarding those who can demonstrably meet its advanced standards. At the same time, the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) has been working on a comparable set of new licensing standards, with the goal of bringing widely disparate state systems to a shared understanding of what constitutes professional teaching. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education Programs has sharply revised its standards; and deans of the education schools in the reform- minded Holmes Group are searching for ways to restructure their programs (notably, through professional development schools like the one described in this issue).

Any such efforts must ultimately ground themselves, just as Essential School classrooms aspire to, in classroom performance that demonstrates real understanding. “Reforms in teacher education ought to be grounding learning about teaching in a process of learning about learning,” Darling-Hammond says. “Understanding that-both for their future students and themselves-is the biggest single change in the philosophy of education. How new teachers are prepared must be as authentic as what we expect in classrooms from them later on.”