Are Our Teachers Good Enough?

by Geoff Camphire
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIII, Number 2, October 2001, Teachers - They matter most
Photo of teacher

A few years ago, Dallas Independent School District's Robert Mendro started comparing the test scores of elementary school students. He had a hunch that the teachers a student had made a difference in that student's test scores. But Mendro, the district's chief evaluation officer, says even he was startled at the size of the achievement gap he uncovered.

After three years with very effective teachers, students were able to raise their test scores by 16 percentile points in both reading and math. By contrast, classmates who started out performing at the same level but had been assigned to very ineffective teachers for three years in a row saw their scores drop dramatically - by 18 percentile points in reading and 33 percentile points in math (see chart).

The lesson learned in Dallas was obvious: Teacher quality counts. At about the same time, other researchers were reaching similar conclusions. In a recent analysis, the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy asserted that the percentage of well-qualified teachers in a state is the most powerful and consistent predictor of its average achievement level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). And in Educating Teachers: The Academy's Greatest Failure or Its Most Important Future? (1999), Stanford University researcher Linda Darling-Hammond showed that teacher ability is a stronger determinant of student achievement than poverty, race, or parents' educational attainment.

Teacher Effectiveness

In the mid-1990s, the Dallas Independent School District conducted a mathematics study that examined student testing data and associated teacher effectiveness data. The math study found effective teachers

  • are knowledgeable about content and able to provide better in-depth explanations to students,
  • cover the entire curriculum, including higher-order skills and concepts,
  • assess student learning frequently and through multiple means, and
  • engage in deep instruction - they go beyond the printed curriculum to help students gain insights into the subject matter.
Source: Karen L. Bembry, Heather R. Jordan, Elvia Gomez, Mark C. Anderson, Robert L. Mendro, Policy Implications of Long-Term Teacher Effects on Student Achievements. Dallas, TX: Dallas Independent School District. Retrieved September 12, 2001, at

The expanding body of research on the topic, amplified by the past decade's increasingly urgent calls for improving student achievement, has made teacher quality arguably the hottest issue in education today. But the challenge of improving teacher quality is greater than ever.

Quality vs. Quantity

Considering the longstanding push for higher standards in education, one might suspect that focusing attention on teacher quality would be a no-brainer. But policymakers and education leaders nationwide are wondering whether they can sustain even current quality levels, given today's teacher shortage. And this shortage is expected to deepen and continue throughout the next decade.

U.S. schools, which currently employ more than 2.9 million teachers, will need to hire more than 2 million teachers during the next 10 years to accommodate record-breaking increases in student enrollment, retiring baby boom-generation teachers, and high rates of attrition among new teachers.

Some places will feel the pinch more acutely than others will. Many of the areas likely to be hit hardest by shortages are in the country's southern and western regions due to increasing student populations.

So where are all the teachers? Either they are moving on to greener pastures or they never gave teaching much chance. In fact, Education Week reported in a recent analysis that more than one out of five new teachers leaves the profession after four years.

(See Supply and Demand Statistics for more information.)

Why They Walk Away

Teachers give many reasons for turning their backs on the classroom. Some cite poor working conditions, school bureaucracy, and lack of support. Others say problems stem from inadequate preservice training and limited opportunities to upgrade their skills. According to a nationwide survey by the U.S. Department of Education, only one teacher in five feels very well prepared to teach in today's classrooms.

A graph displays the cumulative effects of teaching on fifth and sixth grade reading scores in Dallas, TX.  After 3 years of inneffective teachers, scores dropped 33 percentile points in math and dropped 18 percent in reading.  After 3 years of effective teachers, scores rose by 16 percentile points in math and 16 percentile points in reading.
Source: Jordan, Mendro, & Weerasinghe. (1997). Teacher Effects on Longitudinal Student Achievement. Figure based on Overhead 2 from A Talented, Dedicated and Well-Prepared Teacher in Every Classroom: Information Kit, U.S. Department of Education, September 2000.

"Our colleges of education and departments of education are too often treated like forgotten stepchildren in our system of higher education," former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley remarked in an address on teacher quality. "And when eager new teachers enter the classroom for the first time, we give them little, if any, help."

Clearly, those who choose other options are signaling that what teaching asks of them is not worth what it offers in return. Low compensation is a major barrier to staffing schools with qualified teachers. In 1999, U.S. teachers averaged starting salaries of less than $27,989, far below starting salaries of more than $36,200 for all other college graduates, a recent American Federation of Teachers survey showed (see chart).

Photo of teacher in science classroom

The pattern of poor pay for teaching, a field traditionally dominated by women, has been well established for decades. Some states and districts have started addressing the problem in recent years, but overall little has changed. U.S. teachers' average salaries inched up only 19.7 percent from 1991 to 1999, increasing at roughly the same rate as food-service workers' salaries but not enough to keep pace with inflation, reports one economic consulting firm.

Close to home, the picture is even more disappointing. According to Education Week, the states of Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma rank among the "Bottom 10" states in the nation in terms of teacher pay. Oklahoma, where teachers earned an average salary of $29,525, was the second-lowest-paying state in the country during the 1999-2000 school year.

Meanwhile, public education systems are asking teachers to take on a dizzying array of new challenges, including:

  • helping students meet unprecedented academic standards,
  • being held accountable for student test scores,
  • competing with charter-school and voucher-supported education innovations,
  • using new technologies for teaching and professional growth, and
  • instructing students in matters of character as well as academics.

For educators around the country, the high-stakes testing and other accountability systems already in place heighten the sense of urgency around teacher quality issues. "They're [public education systems] going to have to address these issues eventually anyway, so they had better get on with it," warns Richard Elmore, a Harvard University education professor who has written extensively on teacher quality. "We're at a kind of critical stage."

Making Quality Matter

Will public education systems that demand higher levels of teacher quality find their pools of candidates shrinking? On the contrary, some education leaders say, promoting teacher quality can be a dramatic way of supporting the profession - and making it more desirable to qualified candidates and current practitioners.

A graph displays how teachers salaries lag behind beginning salaries in other occupations.
Source: American Federation of Teachers, Survey & Analysis of Teacher Salary Trends 2000. Accessed online September 20, 2001 at

"Concerns about the quantity of the supply have paralyzed people from acting on quality," says Kati Haycock, director of The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates effective education for all students. "There's a kind of assumption that if we raise standards for who teaches, we will automatically worsen the shortage. But there is a fair amount of evidence that that's actually not the case, especially among the high-end people who will be needed to join this increasingly complex work - and who are attracted by higher standards, not repelled by it."

Haycock and others have recommended several promising strategies for strengthening teacher quality and raising the status of the field, including:

Photo of teacher in a classroom
  • Explore new approaches to recruit and retain capable candidates. For example, many districts are encouraging candidates from nontraditional backgrounds, such as business or the military, to enter teaching while ensuring that they meet high professional standards.
  • Require teachers to demonstrate classroom ability through rigorous evaluations. "Personality traits tend to dominate people's conception of what good teaching is rather than knowledge and skill," says Elmore. "Everybody has opinions of who the good teachers are, but in point of fact there is no way, in most school systems, to deliver any evidence about whether they are or not."
  • Strengthen collaborations between K-12 schools and teacher education programs. "One of the things that superintendents and principals can bring to teacher preparation is reality of everyday classroom life," says Margaret Gaston, co-director of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, based in California. "Teacher candidates who have a familiarity with the campus are more comfortable with taking a job there. Principals and superintendents should shop early and begin their guidance and support for these teachers, not when they enter the classroom as employees, but when they're in teacher education programs."
  • Provide meaningful induction programs for teachers. "The extent to which teachers feel they are supported regularly and substantially, especially in the first year of teaching, impacts their persistence rate - whether they stay in a profession," says Gaston. "High-quality induction programs really make a difference."
  • Tap experienced teachers to mentor their novice colleagues. "You have to look at the pool of people who are actually doing this work, and you have to begin to use the people who are good at it in different ways," says Elmore. "People who are good at this work can't continue to be full-time classroom teachers. They have to actually start to be mentor teachers and professional developers."

    Photo of students collaborating on a school project

  • Provide professional development that is ongoing, interactive, and focused to a large extent on academic content, not just technique. Federal 1998 survey data show that a U.S. teacher typically receives less than eight hours of professional development per year. Yet, according to an October 2000 study by the Educational Testing Service, students whose teachers receive professional development score better on assessments than peers who do not have the benefit of such teacher practices.
  • Increase pay for teachers who demonstrate high performance to levels comparable with other professions. "Teaching must compete more aggressively than ever before for a competent workforce," Darling-Hammond observes, "but the incentives offered in many communities simply are not enough to attract and keep capable individuals in education."

Finally, Haycock points out, education leaders must recognize the multiplicity of factors that lead to shortcomings in teacher quality. "Unless you understand that there are various roots of the problem, you're not likely to be able to solve it because there's no single way of solving it," she asserts. "You have to take a comprehensive approach."

The stakes are indisputably high. In the words of David Haselkorn, president of the Massachusetts-based Recruiting New Teachers, Inc.: "Teaching is the profession that makes all other professions possible."

Supply and Demand Statistics

Percentage of Schools Reporting Difficulty Filling Vacancies in Selected Teaching Fields
Secondary School

Math Physical Science Biology English Special Education English as a Second Language
Arkansas 10.2 12.1 19.0 14.9 9.2 17.6 2.3
Louisiana 20.2 20.1 19.8 16.4 17.4 29.4 3.6
New Mexico 13.0 32.1 21.1 14.0 6.6 37.3 19.0
Oklahoma 5.7 13.9 11.0 8.2 12.0 17.0 2.8
Texas 11.8 37.6 22.2 17.0 16.9 26.8 13.4


Rates of and Reasons for Public School Teacher Attrition
  % of teachers who moved or left teaching Of those who moved or left
% who moved to another school % who left teaching % who retired % who left due to dissatisfaction, salary, or career change
Arkansas 6.6 4.7 4.7 57.2
Louisiana 6.4 8.1 26.4 53.9
New Mexico 10.5 3.6 10.1 51.7
Oklahoma 7.2 3.4 14.5 79.2
Texas 8.2 4.4 9.0 79.6

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, 1993-94 Schools and Staffing Surveys. Tabulations conducted by the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future.


Total Number of Teachers and Their Ages, 1993-1994
  Total Number of Teachers Mean Age % Under Age 30 % Age 30-39 % Age 40-49 % Age 50+
Arkansas 31,000 41.6 11.9 30.0 38.4 19.6
Louisiana 49,000 41.8 13.7 26.5 38.6 21.1
New Mexico 19,000 42.4 10.2 25.9 42.2 21.7
Oklahoma 42,000 41.7 11.7 26.5 43.0 18.8
Texas 224,000 41.6 13.6 26.9 39.0 20.6

Sources: Hussar, William J. (1999). Predicting the Need for Newly Hired Teachers in the United States to 2008-09. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics and Henke, Robin R. et al. (1997). America's Teachers: Profile of a Profession, 1993-94. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, NCES 97-460.

The author of this article, Geoff Camphire, is a senior manager with KSA-Plus Communications, based in Arlington, VA. He has written on education issues for more than 10 years.

Next Article: Are Alternative Certification Programs a Solution to the Teacher Shortage?