Most analysts in the education policy conversation agree that teacher quality is the most important in-school variable shaping students’ educational outcomes. It’s a huge lever—new technology, fancy curricula, and better content standards are almost meaningless without a great teacher to make them work.

But while there’s considerable agreement on the importance of getting talented instructors into the classroom, there’s wide variance on how we should go about attracting, training, and retaining great teachers. The Department of Education—with State Farm, teachers unions, Teach For America, Microsoft, and others—is trying exhortation and better advertising. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education is inching towards higher entry barriers for becoming a licensed teacher. Teach For America offers high-performing college graduates an alternate route to teaching certification outside traditional teaching programs. At a pilot level, in New York City, The Equity Project is experimenting with high teacher salaries and concomitantly high expectations.

Yet there’s little evidence that the American teaching force is significantly changing in response to these—and previous—recruitment efforts. Nearly half of American teachers still graduate in the bottom third of their college classes. A quarter of teacher preparation programs accept nearly every applicant they receive, and two-thirds of programs have acceptance rates over 50 percent. We set extraordinarily low standards for becoming a teacher.

The respondents ranked education the top profession for “average” people.

A new report from Third Way offers some insight into the challenges of remaking America’s teaching force. Authors Tamara Hiler and Lanae Erickson Hatalsky polled 400 high-performing (with GPAs of B+ or higher) college students to get their views on the teaching profession—and what it might take to entice them into becoming teachers themselves.

The results are challenging.

Only 17 percent of students reported that they were “very interested” in teaching, while fully 40 percent weren’t interested at all. They also ranked Education as one of the easiest majors to pursue in college, which perhaps feeds their dim view of the profession: 50% believe that teaching has gotten less prestigious over the last decade. The respondents ranked education the top profession for “average” people.

There’s a chicken/egg problem here. Ambitious college students see teaching as a moribund field, so they avoid it. Weaker students enter the field through weak teaching preparation programs. Graduates from these programs struggle to substantially improve student achievement, which feeds public cynicism about public schools and teachers. As a result, the profession gets targeted for more accountability reforms—and less money. Ambitious college students see this and, well, you get the picture.

Source: Third Way

Source: Third Way

So Hiler and Hatalsky asked the polled students what would make them more likely to pursue teaching. How, in other words, could policymakers break the cycle? The top three answers were as predictable as they were clear:

  • Higher pay for all teachers
  • Higher pay for highly-effective teachers
  • Better student loan repayment for teachers

It comes down to resources. In a moment when our governing institutions cannot manage basic appropriations tasks, these may seem like a non-starter—especially considering the profession’s limited cachet. More money for teachers? Dream on!

Or perhaps not? The report suggests that the Department of Education use NCLB waivers to restructure American teachers’ career paths:

The federal government should direct its resources to ensure that all districts create and implement stratified career ladders and differentiated pay structures that offer the best teachers the opportunity to stay in the classroom while taking on additional responsibility and earning increased autonomy. While updating NCLB to mandate this improvement is the most permanent and direct way to ensure these changes, current teachers should not have to wait for the political uncertainty of reauthorization. Until then, all NCLB waivers granted by the Department of Education should be contingent on states requiring districts to implement modern career and compensation ladders in a timely manner.

There’s no question that this would be a heavy lift. But Hiler and Hatalsky argue that it would help make teaching more attractive to students, like those they polled, who find a career where high performance leads to additional resources and responsibilities. These students are uninterested in a career with low base compensation and no connection between quality work and salary increases. They’re not attracted to “step and lane” contracts. Maybe there’s room in today’s Overton Window to pay teachers more on the condition that they were also held more responsible for the effects of their work.

If this still seems unreasonable, note that it’s just one of the report’s suggestions. To read recommendations for revamping teacher retirement systems, teacher training, and more, click here!

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams