More on the Importance of the Teacher Supply

hiringLast week the Brookings Institution’s Chalkboard blog published a piece of mine on the importance of the teacher supply to education reform. It’s really an elaboration of a point I’ve made at various times in the past, with California as an illustrative example:

[M]any teacher evaluation reform efforts may be focused too heavily on the demand side of teacher evaluation. That is, many reform efforts tend to assume that principals are overly generous with their evaluations because they lack either the motivation or the information to demand better performance from their teachers. There may be something to this, but it is important not to ignore the supply side of the teacher quality problem. After all, the extent to which a principal is willing to dismiss (or give a poor evaluation to) a teacher will likely depend in part upon her beliefs about the probability of finding a superior replacement in a reasonable period of time.

The extent to which principals today are constrained in their evaluation and dismissal decisions by the quality and size of the teacher labor supply is not obvious and probably varies by grade level, content area, and geographic location. There are, however, reasons to suspect that teacher supply constraints are real and may be getting worse.

Feedback has generally been very positive, but I did hear a few critiques that are worth responding to. Some of this I’d have included in the original post but even as it was I was running a little over-long.

“It’s Much Harder to Use Policy to Influence Teacher Supply”

I heard from several people that the reason education reform has not targeted supply more directly is that the policy levers to influence demand are mostly at the K-12 level and for various reasons therefore easier to pull. That is, evaluation reform can be legislated or controlled much more easily than change in the higher education system (where teachers are trained).

There may be something to this, but I’m not sure I fully buy it. For one thing, teacher evaluation reform seems to me to have been enormously difficult politically in most places, and my point is precisely that for all of the political oxygen that’s been consumed the actual impacts have often been muted. So I’m not really sure what “harder” means when thinking about teacher supply reform.

Second, the K-12/higher ed dichotomy is largely false. While improving, say, teacher preparation would be hard, the teacher supply also depends a great deal on factors at the K-12 level. As I wrote in the Brookings piece, teacher compensation, working conditions, and even evaluation may all matter for the quantity and quality of the teacher supply, but seem to me have been unjustifiably neglected.

Finally, while reform at the higher education level may be difficult, it could nevertheless be worthwhile. In fact, teacher preparation reforms may be one of the best ways to improve not only the size, but the quality of the teacher supply. That promise is why I signed on as an adviser to Deans for Impact.

“Reformers Really Have Targeted the Teacher Supply”

Matt Barnum thinks I’m not giving reformers enough credit for improving the teacher supply. After all, the rise of alternative certification – which has lowered barriers to entry into teaching seemingly without sacrificing quality – is arguably one of reformers’ biggest policy wins.

I’m a supporter of alternative certification for this very reason, so I basically agree with Matt. Three caveats, however.

First, it’s not entirely obvious to me exactly how big the supply effects of alternative certification programs really are. Some programs seem to be making an effort to target geographic and subject areas that are most in need, but that’s not a universal priority and I haven’t seen a good analysis of whether these programs are meeting our greatest needs in effective ways. I also don’t know how many people who enter through alternative certification wouldn’t enter the classroom otherwise. (As one piece of anecdata, I entered the classroom through a traditional route after my application to Teach for America was rejected.)

Second, to the extent that alternative certification programs do not emphasize – and sometimes deliberately deemphasize – teacher retention, they may be undermining their own supply benefits. Again, it’s an open question in my view and if there are good analyses out there I’d like to see them.

Third, I have concerns about common narratives around recruiting the “best and brightest” through some alternative certification programs. To some extent alternative certification is about lowering barriers to entry into the profession. In some cases, though, alternative certification has become about throwing up different barriers to entry, e.g., recruiting the most academically impressive candidates from the most exclusive colleges and universities. Since it’s not clear that these new barriers result in a better teaching force overall, I worry that they contribute to growing-but-as-yet-unjustified calls to “raise the bar” for teachers.

“Teacher Evaluation is not about Dismissing Teachers”

On the subject of contributing to unproductive narratives, Kaitlin Pennington suggests that I have framed the purpose of teacher evaluation too narrowly:

While there is some truth to Bruno’s argument, his framing of teacher evaluation—as a system that is built to “dismiss teachers”— furthers a flawed narrative about the purpose and use of teacher evaluation systems.

The purpose of reformed teacher evaluation systems, first and foremost, is to identify teachers’ strengths and weaknesses in order to refine educators’ instruction for improved student learning. New evaluation systems were meant to be a tool to reward excellent instruction, provide opportunities for targeted professional development, and create systems of support in schools in districts.

I’ve been pushing reformers to focus less on teacher dismissal for years, so I don’t really disagree with this and certainly did not intend to suggest that dismissal is the only – or even the primary – purpose of teacher evaluation. As I say even where Pennington quotes me, the teacher supply matters even for critical evaluations and apart from dismissal. Principals are making all of their evaluation decisions – whether for staff development or for dismissal – in the context of the status quo teacher supply. Their criteria for effectiveness and their willingness to risk alienating staff with critical evaluations will likely depend in part upon the quantity and quality of the other teachers available to them.

Also, not to put too fine a point on it, but teacher evaluation really is in part about dismissing teachers. I do not think administrators should be firing large numbers of teachers for performance, but I’m certainly not the only person who believes they should be dismissing some teachers based on poor evaluations.

I do think there is a narrative around teacher evaluations that is overly focused on their punitive uses. As Pennington herself points out, “new teacher evaluation systems in many places were sold as ways to ‘get rid of bad teachers.'” So while it’s not my narrative and while I don’t want to contribute to it, the narrative she is concerned about really does exist and it probably does change the way people read a piece like mine.

I probably could have done a better job distancing myself from that narrative, but there’s also an important lesson there about narratives in general. The existence of that narrative could probably have been avoided if, many years ago, education reformers had been more thoughtful with their policies and careful with their language. But now that we’re stuck with it, it makes talking about teacher evaluation and dismissal even in measured terms that much more difficult.

If reformers now want to distance themselves from the narrative that teacher evaluation reform is mostly about firing bad teachers, I think that’s great. At the same time, it’s worth thinking about how we can be improving other narratives today so that they aren’t tripping up worthwhile reform efforts tomorrow.

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