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Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Real US Teacher Supply Problem

The main problem with the teacher supply is that 50% of education majors are great. They are smart, academically able, motivated for all the right reasons—just wonderful. Sure they are green, but everyone has to start at the beginning. This essay is not about them. Then there are the other 50%. Some of them may be plenty smart, but they are the antithesis of the great 50% and what is worse, motivated by all the wrong reasons.

I taught three teacher education courses: Math for Elementary Teachers, First Language Acquisition, and Early Childhood Curriculum. I taught these courses after decades of classroom teaching experience. I am not even going to discuss how hard it is for a teacher who offers nothing but experience to even land a university teaching gig, except to point out how silly it is for colleges of education to turn away experience in favor of a PhD, and how ironic that a teacher who chose to stay in the classroom is at an extreme disadvantage when it comes time to pass on their wisdom.

Aspiring teachers have lots of hoops to jump through. Significantly, none of the hoops poses much of a challenge. The hoops are proforma, doing little more than keeping the line moving forward in an orderly fashion. Everyone eventually gets on the Ferris wheel.

College Entrance Hoop

I have asked countless students why they want to be teachers. The answers they give range from heart-warming to pathetic. One said it was either teaching or the Army. Several have said it was because they flunked out of Hotel Management or Business. Many consider teaching their last viable option for employment. Furthermore, regardless of your opinion of the SAT, it is well-documented that education students tend to have lower scores than students in most other majors. Colleges of education need to become more selective. The last time I said so at a faculty meeting, the chair said that it was a great idea but the school could not afford the hit on tuition.

Education students are notoriously weak in mathematics. At one university, 95% percent of all elementary education students were unable to score 70% or better on a straightforward computation pretest of first through sixth grade math. Meanwhile, Math for Elementary Teachers students complain about how unfair of the university to make them jump through the worthless hoop of studying elementary math. “We learned all that in elementary school,” they say, “The university is wasting our time and our tuition money.” They say this even after they see their scores on the pretest.

Math for Elementary Teachers Hoop

The colleges of education are well aware of the fact that education students do not possess what Liping Ma calls “profound understanding of fundamental mathematics.” Most colleges of education require education students to take a series of elementary math courses. 50% of each section will likely fail the class. They will repeat until they pass. One student asked me to congratulate her when she passed on her third attempt. Then she confessed sheepishly, “But I passed because that professor skipped fractions and decimals.” I was aghast. “You failed fractions and decimals in my class,” I said. “What grade do you want to teach?” “Fifth grade,” she said. I was aghast again. “Fifth grade is all about fractions and decimals. What are you going to do?” “I guess I'll figure it out when the time comes,” she replied. Sadly, she is all too typical of THAT 50%.

College Graduation Hoop

Perhaps you are certain a student like her will never graduate. You would be wrong. That 50% will graduate with near 4.0 GPA in their education courses. They will have struggled to maintain a 2.0 in all their other university coursework. I know this because the university sent the local newspaper a massive spreadsheet containing a year's worth of grades, with copies to every professor.

Student Teaching Hoop

Maybe you think the 50% will wash out during their student teaching placements. They won't. The university supervisors responsible for observing and evaluating student teachers are generally non-tenured adjunct professors. They are under tremendous pressure to push the 50% on through. University supervisors who actually have halfway rigorous evaluation standards may very likely lose their jobs due to off-the-record complaints because “it just wouldn't be right to wash out students who have invested so much time and money into becoming a teacher.” Students, with rare exceptions, cannot fail. Students failure would put the school of education cash cow at risk.

Teacher Certification Hoop

Surely, the 50% will be stopped at the state certification gateway. Not at all. Many state departments of education have agreements with the state colleges of education. Anyone who graduates from a state college automatically gets a teaching credential. Ironically, the proven veteran of long experience who moves to a new state may be able to get a new state credential but will not be able to keep it. When the new credential expires for lack of employment, the experienced teacher will be falsely considered unqualified.

Job Interview Hoop

Of course no principal will hire those poorly qualified and unmotivated teachers from the 50%. Wrong again. Principals (and the general public) consider mere possession of a teaching credential to be prima facie evidence of quality. In fact, principals will hire one of the 50% over an experienced, proven applicant because the novice is cheaper. Thus the 50% occupy an awful lot of our nation's classrooms. “Teachers with 10 or fewer years’ experience now constitute over 52 percent of our teaching force.”

No wonder school administrators do not defer to the knowledge, judgment, experience, and professionalism of their faculty, since 50% do not belong there in the first place. No wonder publishers have made big business out of scripted curriculum. Teachers, a strange hybrid of employee and professional, want the esteem due a professional. To the extent that selection and training is weak, the profession is demeaned.


  1. I am a student in an education program that is slightly non-traditional: we're a satellite campus (of a well-respected education school) and most of my classmates are not right out of high school. We really have a great program.

    However, I definitely see the 50% of students who should not be here. I've often lamented with some of my more motivated, diligent, and yes, intelligent, peers, that there needs to be a more rigorous admissions process. There ought to be an interview process, admissions essays, recommendations, etc. The essential requirement is filling out an application.

    The lack of knowledge and interest in books and reading is appalling. I love math and was so disappointed with our math class. It was easy, yet most of the class struggled with basic concepts. I wish we were required to take a more formal math class that Elementary Math. We have to take 3 regular English classes, so why not a course in college algebra or statistics, one without the "for teachers" designation? Elementary teachers should be competent and comfortable with basic math, and a little beyond, if they hope to effectively teach their students.

    All that to say that your post resonated with me. I think that if we want our schools to improve, we need to raise the standard for the quality of teachers we are training.

    I thought your previous post on the comparability of the results on international tests was interesting. I'd be curious to learn how the top performing nations train their teachers.

  2. An alternative worthy of emulating is Finland's approach to teacher preparation. Being a teacher is considered the third most desirable profession, after doctors and lawyers. See this url for a 20m clip on what they do and how they do it: