President Bush emphasizes the importance of improving teacher quality, and proposes holding states accountable for providing all students with “effective teachers.” We agree with the President that improving teacher quality must be one of our highest priorities, and we strongly support his proposal to forgive student loans for some math and science teachers. We do have concerns that the magnitude of the President’s proposals may fall far short of what is required, and with how teachers’ “effectiveness” might be assessed.
One of the ways the President proposes improving teacher quality is to provide funds to use for forgiving student loans for math and science majors who choose to teach in schools serving disadvantaged students. This measure, in conjunction with his proposed Math and Science Partnership for states, colleges and universities, could well serve to strengthen K-12 math and science education – depending, of course, on the particulars of funding and implementation. However, the need for better prepared teachers does not stop with the subjects of math and science. All schools, and especially “high need” schools, need more teachers and better teachers in all subject areas. This is especially true given the growing effort not only to achieve standards but also to raise standards to more challenging levels. Until the funding and programmatic particulars of the plan are revealed it is impossible to know with certainty, but we are concerned that the President’s program for improving teacher quality will fall considerably short of the current and future needs of the nation’s schools.
Campaigner Bush proposed $580 million per year to support teacher training and expand the existing program for recruiting retired military personnel into teaching.43 This proposal lacked even the vague, needs-based targeting language of his reading program, leaving serious doubt as to how much teacher training help would actually reach the high-poverty schools most in need.
Furthermore, more than one-fourth of that $580 million was to fund a tax deduction for teachers who spend money from their own pockets on school supplies.44 The remaining $430 million would not begin to address the looming need to recruit not only more teachers, but better-qualified ones. For students to excel, they will need highly knowledgeable and skilled teachers. And these teachers must be brought into the profession at a time when baby boomers are beginning to retire in large numbers, and schools need greater numbers of teachers to reduce class sizes in elementary grades.45
Another major concern is the proposal to fold the current federal class size reduction program into a larger, teacher quality block grant (along with the current Eisenhower Professional Development program). Federal class size reduction dollars are specifically targeted to the early grades. A growing body of sophisticated research demonstrates that class size reduction in K-3 – under certain conditions – raises student achievement, most especially for poor and minority students, and that these benefits continue to accrue throughout their school career and beyond.46 To block grant this program will result in the de-targeting of these funds and risks diluting one of the most successful known methods of closing the achievement gap.
Two aspects of the President’s proposals for improving teacher quality raise concerns regarding improper incentives and unintended consequences. Federal dollars would go to reward states that measure teacher performance using gains in student test scores, and would also be available for states to use on merit-based teacher performance systems. Parsing out causal relationships between teacher quality (and any other factors) and gains in test scores is highly problematic conceptually. Thus, the linking of pay raises or 14 bonuses to test scores, particularly in the context of the President’s very narrow, mandatory testing program, could easily exacerbate the very worst aspects of teaching to the test and serve as precisely the wrong kind of incentives for teachers. In any case, the call to hold states generally accountable for teacher effectiveness, in conjunction with specific incentives to tie teacher recognition specifically to test scores raises serious concerns, that we hope will be addressed in forthcoming legislation.