How Good a Job Do Wisconsin Schools of Education Do?
By Mark C. Schug, Ph.D. and M. Scott Niederjohn, Ph.D.
March 4, 2008
Table of Contents:
I. Executive Summary
When leaders in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and other Wisconsin school districts set about hiring new teachers, where should they look to find the candidates most likely to do a good job of improving their students’ academic learning? There are several possibilities. In Wisconsin alone 32 colleges and universities, public and private, offer training programs leading to initial certification for teaching in the state’s Kindergarten to Grade 12 (K-12) schools. These programs are alike in many ways, since all of them must meet the state’s program-approval standards, but they are by no means identical. They vary in their stated goals, admission standards, curricular emphases, course requirements, and in the profiles of the faculty members who design and conduct the programs. It seems plausible, therefore, that the various programs also would differ in their effectiveness—some outperforming others in producing teachers who know how to improve students’ academic achievement. To the extent that they differ in this respect, it also would seem plausible that school districts would take account of the differences, striving to hire graduates from those programs known for their strong, positive training effects.
After all, the stakes are high. It matters a great deal who gets hired to teach, especially in large urban school districts like the MPS, which are struggling to improve graduation rates and achievement levels. Notwithstanding the influence of homes and neighborhoods, teacher quality has a powerful effect on students’ academic achievement.
Unfortunately, school districts to date have had no reliable basis for making well-informed judgments about the effectiveness of the many teacher training programs whose graduates they might consider for employment. This study addresses this problem, with special reference to the staffing needs of large urban school districts such as MPS.
Using three sources of data, we analyze the preparation of elementary school teachers who have six years or less experience in the MPS. First, we collected data regarding the programs and teacher candidates of schools and departments of education around the state. Second, we used a valued-added methodology (VAM) to measure the effectiveness of new MPS elementary school teachers trained at various schools and departments of education, based on their students’ achievement gains. We wondered, for example, if teachers prepared at large, urban-based research institutions such as UW-Milwaukee outperformed teachers trained in other UW-System programs or in Wisconsin’s many private colleges and universities. Finally, we invited new elementary school teachers in MPS to rate the quality of various aspects of their teacher certification program.
How knowledgeable are elementary teacher candidates from the various schools and departments of education in Wisconsin?
We used “valued-added methodology” in an effort to measure the effectiveness of new MPS elementary teachers trained at various schools and departments of education, based on their students’ achievement gains. Value-added is the name given to powerful statistical systems that measure test score gains of students and link these outcomes to other variables such as classroom teachers.
We found that new MPS elementary teachers add to the academic achievement of their students. However, the student performance gains are not significantly affected by the school or department of education from which the teachers in question graduated. New MPS elementary school teachers trained in programs with an urban specialization (such as UW-Milwaukee and MTEC) fare no better than do teachers trained in the cornfields of rural Wisconsin.
Teacher Survey Results
We surveyed nearly 200 new MPS elementary school teachers, asking them to rate the value of various aspects of their teacher training programs. Here is a summary of the results.
Four important conclusions can be drawn from this study. First, Wisconsin provides no easy way for school districts to learn about the probable quality of certified teachers in advance of hiring.
Second, while most teacher candidates in Wisconsin score above the national median on the Praxis II exam, MPS is more likely to attract teachers from schools where candidates perform, on average, at the national median. That is because few new teachers from UW-Madison get hired to teach at elementary schools in MPS. MPS is much more likely to hire teachers from UW-Milwaukee and the MTEC program.
Third, the evidence shows that new MPS elementary school teachers are improving the academic achievement of their students, but the student performance gains are not significantly related to the schools or departments of education the teachers attended. Elementary school teachers trained at institutions that specialize in an urban mission—such as UW-Milwaukee and MTEC—perform no better in MPS than teachers trained elsewhere, in terms of the achievement gains they produce.
Fourth, the MTEC alternative teacher preparation program has two clear advantages over traditional programs. First, it is more efficient. Elementary school teachers trained at traditional schools and departments of education take, on average, about 66 credits of education courses—about half of all their university coursework. These are the courses that teachers surveyed for this study ranked as the least valuable parts of their training programs, by far. In contrast, the MTEC program requires about a month of classroom training and a great deal of on-the-job teaching. Moreover, many MTEC teachers rate the quality of their program more highly than teachers from other programs rate theirs. Yet, MTEC teachers are not more effective. They produce the same achievement gains as teachers trained in traditional programs at UW-Milwaukee and other UW-System schools. MTEC has struggled to figure out what it will take to produce achievement gains over teachers trained in traditional programs. Second, MTEC year-to-year has a high retention rate—over 80 percent in recent years. Milwaukee has a high turnover rate among its teachers—much higher than the rate in other Wisconsin school districts. The fact that MTEC teachers tend to stay with MPS is no small accomplishment.
Our study overall suggests many possible areas for improvement. For example, we might recommend that:
But we choose to refrain from emphasizing a laundry list of specific recommendations for fine tuning Wisconsin’s teacher preparation programs as they relate to MPS. Why? Partly because recommendations of this sort are old news. Similar recommendations have been proposed, and ignored, for a long time. Also, traditional teacher training programs today are restricted in ways that are almost too numerous to count. In other words, it is hard for us to imagine that the system can change itself by adoption of measures aimed at fine tuning. PI 34—the state’s rules governing teacher training—tie the enterprise up and buttress the status quo. Almost always, when leaders at traditional teacher training programs are challenged to defend their programs in response to student or parental complaints, they take refuge in the rules, pointing out they are just following the mandates of PI-34.
It gets worse. Tenure protection for senior faculty members makes it difficult to redesign or abolish certain courses in the teacher preparation program, no matter what program graduates think of them. Those courses belong to somebody, and he or she doesn’t want to lose them. Similarly, college and university chancellors and presidents would be hard pressed to imagine why they should increase admission standards for schools and departments of education when such actions would almost certainly result in reduced enrollments and less revenue for the institution. And throughout the UW-System all the issues surrounding “faculty governance” add to the bureaucratic inflexibility which makes it almost impossible for schools and departments of education to embark on truly innovative approaches.
Our primary recommendation is not for fine tuning. It is that the State of Wisconsin should push its teacher training schools to change the subject—that is, to focus effort and resources sharply on the task of teaching new teachers how to improve the academic achievement of their students, in urban schools and elsewhere. Suitable programs would share many of the features that now exist in charter schools. Toward this end, exemptions from DPI rules should be issued as necessary. A state board—perhaps one appointed by the Board of Regents—could accept applications from interested institutions. New programs would be allowed to experiment. They would be supported in their efforts to attract bright, capable people from any background to serve as leaders. They would set new standards for teachers, admitting only candidates who stood out as smart, well-educated, and hard-working. They would feature intense internships (taking a cue from MTEC) rather than traditional models of student teaching. Their programs would focus on the curriculum and standards for which new teachers would actually be responsible when they begin to teach. And they would strive in all these efforts—and others of their devising—to validate their practices by reference to empirical evidence about the known effects of those practices on students’ academic achievement. National partners such as Teach for America—a program that attracts thousands of college graduates, many from UW-Madison,[i] to teach in urban schools—might be an excellent model.
We also offer two other recommendations.
When leaders in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and other Wisconsin school districts set about hiring new teachers, where should they look to find the candidates who are most likely to do a good job of improving their students’ academic learning? There are several possibilities. In Wisconsin alone 32 colleges and universities, public and private, offer training programs leading to initial certification for teaching in the state’s Kindergarten to Grade 12 (K-12) schools. These programs are alike in many ways, since all of them must meet the state’s program-approval standards, but they are by no means identical. They vary in their stated goals, admission standards, curricular emphases, course requirements, and in the profiles of the faculty members who design and conduct the programs. It seems plausible, therefore, that the various programs also would differ in their effectiveness—some outperforming others in producing teachers who know how to improve students’ academic achievement. To the extent that they differ in this respect, it also would seem plausible that school districts would take account of the differences, striving to hire graduates from those programs known for their strong, positive training effects.
After all, the stakes are high. It matters a great deal who gets hired to teach, especially in large urban school districts struggling to improve graduation rates and achievement levels. Notwithstanding the influence of homes and neighborhoods, teacher quality has a powerful effect on students’ academic achievement. One study has shown that, for children fortunate enough to have good teachers throughout their years in school, the effects of good teaching can substantially offset or even eliminate the disadvantage ordinarily associated with growing up in a poor socio-economic environment.[ii] The potential implications of such findings are enormous. Imagine, for example, the personal and societal benefits that would follow if parents and principals in Milwaukee could be confident that all the district’s elementary school teachers could be counted on to produce large academic gains, year after year.
Unfortunately, school districts to date have had no reliable basis for making well-informed judgments about the effectiveness of the many teacher training programs whose graduates they might consider for employment. Information about effectiveness has not been available. One reason is simply that, until recently, there has been nothing that could serve as a valid outcome measure of K-12 achievement gains linked to the practice of particular teachers, and nothing, therefore, to correlate with the teacher training programs in question. As a result, the teacher training program of a given college or university might acquire a positive or a negative reputation in a particular school district for purely idiosyncratic reasons—institutional proximity, for example, fostering friendly or unfriendly personal and professional relationships between parties on both sides—unrelated to program effects.
Today, however, these circumstances have begun to change, thanks to new developments in state policy and education research. One development has to do with the establishment of statewide curriculum standards and assessment programs. Wisconsin, along with most other states, has adopted a system of statewide curriculum standards for grades K-12, along with an assessment system linked to those standards. Not everybody is satisfied with the standards or the assessment system, but taken together they provide, for the first time, bases for assessing how K-12 students in the state are doing by reference to formally established standards. By itself, however, this new means of assessment cannot provide answers to questions about the capacity of Teacher X to improve students’ achievement, since levels of achievement for a given student in a given year might reflect factors outside the teacher’s control—for example, previous years of good teaching or poor teaching for which the teacher should not be credited or blamed. To deal with this problem, we need a way to determine the extent to which a teacher improves students’ achievement during the time she or he is their teacher.
The Central Role of Value-Added Methodology
It is now possible to make such a determination by using what is called value-added methodology (VAM). VAM is a system by means of which students’ achievement gains are measured from year to year, rather than at widely spaced check points. Results from value-added testing can be correlated with individual teachers, showing how much value (i.e., achievement gain) can be attributed to the work of a given teacher over the course of a school year. Such results, in turn, can be correlated with the college and university programs in which the teachers in question received their training, and those correlations might shed light on questions that school district officials and others would have reason to ask about the effectiveness of those training programs.
The pioneer of VAM is William L. Sanders, a senior research fellow with the University of North Carolina system and, for more than 34 years, a professor and director of the University of Tennessee's Value-Added Research and Assessment Center. Professor Sanders developed the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System as a method of measuring the effectiveness of school systems, schools, and teachers. In the course of his work he and his colleagues have concluded that classroom teachers are the single most important influence on student progress. In a summary of the VAM research, Sanders and Horn[iii] state that “Differences in teacher effectiveness [are] the dominant factor affecting student academic gain. The importance of . . . certain classroom contextual variables (e.g., class size, classroom heterogeneity) appears to be rather minor. . . .” And again, citing a 1997 study:[iv] “the two most important factors impacting student gain are the differences in classroom teacher effectiveness and the prior achievement level of the students. The teacher effect is highly significant in every analysis and has a larger effect size than any other factor in twenty of the thirty analyses.”
Value-added analysis differs from the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) analysis called for by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. AYP requires that schools measure the performance of students at several grade levels as well as the performance of several sub-groups of students (by race, gender, disability and so forth) and then compare the proportion of students meeting a fixed standard. A fundamental problem with this approach is that some students will enter a grade with higher levels of achievement than others. Those who come in ahead of the others at the outset will obviously find it easier than the others to meet the proficiency standards set by AYP. And students who are performing below grade level might face great difficulty in meeting the AYP standards even if they do a great job of improving their performance over the school year. Value-added analysis deals with this problem by comparing individual students to themselves—by reference to their achievement levels early and late in a school year. VAM methods thus make the assessment of learning more equitable for students in large urban school districts such as MPS, where teachers face many students performing below grade level at the start of each school year. For the same reason, VAM is more equitable for teachers, since it enables individual teachers to show how much they are adding to the achievement gains of students in their classrooms. No teacher gets an edge merely because he or she teaches students who are ahead at the outset.
Applications of VAM are expanding quickly. The UW-Madison Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) has established a research team that is well versed in VAM. In fact, the VAM model that we will present in this report is based upon the work of Rob Meyer, director of Value-Added Research Center (VARC), housed within the WCER.[v] The Ohio Partnership for Accountability, including all 51 of Ohio’s schools of education, is using VAM to better understand its teacher preparation programs. Researchers at Louisiana State University are developing a VAM approach designed specifically to measure the effectiveness of schools of education in that state.
The Present Study: Purpose and Focus
We approach the present study against the background sketched out above: The utility, for school district officials and others, of obtaining solid information about the effectiveness of teacher training programs. We also explore the possibility, given recent developments in state policy and education research, of obtaining such information by value-added analysis of academic achievement gains.
As a first step toward showing how information of this sort might be obtained, we focus here on elementary school teachers in MPS. Our purpose is to analyze their training programs, their value-added profiles, and the correlations of the programs and the value-added profiles.
We focus on elementary school teachers for two reasons, one theoretical and one practical. Basic problems facing MPS—low graduation rates and low levels of academic achievement—can be linked to the failure of students to learn basic reading and math skills in the early grades. Many students who get off to a bad start in school never recover, and it is a short step from the discouragement they feel to a decision to leave school. Second, as a practical matter, MPS is in the early stages of its efforts to use VAM for internal purposes. Thanks to these early efforts, and cooperation from MPS officials, we were able to assemble a data base suitable for use in measuring the performance of new MPS teachers—but only regular education teachers at the elementary school level. Students in middle schools and high schools have multiple teachers. Linking individual student performance to individual teachers is a more daunting task in those circumstances. We hope that additional analyses will be conducted as new data sets become available for students in later grades.
Ask any parent what’s important for children in the K-12 schools and you very likely will hear that children need good teachers. As obvious as that point seems, many leading scholars have, until recently, downplayed the importance of teacher quality in their analyses of what makes a difference in schooling. For two decades after the publication of James Coleman’s Equality of Educational Opportunity (1966), many educators pointed to Coleman’s findings as evidence for the claim that schools can do little to influence students’ learning. Coleman’s study, based on data for 60,000 teachers and more than 3000 schools, did not conclude that schools make no difference, but it did conclude that nearly all variability in students’ academic achievement is attributable to their socioeconomic backgrounds. Students from middle-class families outperformed students from poor families—regardless of the schools they attended, the degrees held by their teachers, their teachers’ years of experience, the size of their school’s library, and a host of other school “input” variables. This general conclusion encouraged many educators and others to seek educational reform via broad social policies (anti-poverty measures and school desegregation, for example) intended to get at the underlying conditions said to put poor children at a disadvantage in the schools. It discouraged reform efforts addressed to such factors as teacher quality. “Don’t bother with that stuff,” the popularized version of Coleman’s findings held; “it is a waste of resources.”
Coleman's methodology is now regarded as flawed. Coleman analyzed data aggregated at the school level. Researchers now understand that aggregating data in this way can distort findings. Whitehurst illustrates this point very well:
I am reminded of the man who had his head in the oven and his feet in the freezer but whose temperature, on average, was just right. If you average together the effective teachers with the ineffective teachers, and the high performing students with the low performing students, you don't get to see the cold and hot spots where teacher characteristics might make a difference.[vi]
Whitehurst goes on to discuss more recent analyses of data involving individual classrooms and students. Statistical techniques have been used on these disaggregated data to estimate the variables that contribute to differences in children's academic achievement. Such studies control for the influence of the individual abilities and knowledge the child brings to the classroom, the classroom itself, and the characteristics of the school.
A recent Texas study provides an example. Using a massive database of student test scores, Rivlin, Hanushek, and Kain (2002) analyzed the performance of students in mathematics over time and calculated the effect of individual teachers on student achievement. They found that teacher effectiveness varied dramatically and had a major effect on student performance. They concluded that having a high quality teacher throughout elementary school can substantially offset or even eliminate the disadvantage students incur from growing up in a low socio-economic background.[vii]
Other examples also suggest that teacher quality is a far more important variable than people influenced by Coleman have supposed. In their review of the scholarship, Scheerens and Bosker[viii] found that roughly 20 percent of observed differences in student achievement is associated with the schools children attend; another 20 percent is associated with individual classrooms and teachers; and the remaining 60 percent is associated with differences among the children in each classroom, including the effects of their prior achievement and their socioeconomic background. Whitehurst notes that these studies might still underestimate the importance of the teacher.
The academic ability of teachers is an issue of particular importance, given the evidence that teachers with higher verbal ability produce greater achievement gains in their students. Haycock has summarized some of the research.[ix] Harvard’s Ronald F. Ferguson, for example, examined the relationship between student achievement and teacher performance on a basic literacy test called the Texas Examination of Current Administrators and Teachers (TECAT). Ferguson found a significant positive relationship between teacher test scores on the TECAT and student scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. He also found that higher-scoring teachers were more likely to produce significant gains in student achievement than were lower-scoring teachers.[x] Ferguson obtained similar results in a study in Alabama, finding a strong positive relationship between teachers’ test scores (ACT scores) and student achievement results.[xi]
There is also considerable evidence that teachers’ content knowledge is a key factor in raising student achievement. The research is especially clear in mathematics and science. Goldhaber and Brewer found a significant positive relationship between teachers’ degrees and student achievement in some subjects. They concluded that “in mathematics and science, it is the teacher subject-specific knowledge that is the important factor in determining tenth-grade achievement.”[xii] They found further that advanced education degrees and years of experience seem to have no clear relationship to student achievement.
Whitehurst provides a good summary of the research on the importance of academic quality among teachers. At a 2002 White House Conference on Preparing Tomorrow’s teachers, he said:
The most robust finding in the research literature is the effect of teacher verbal and cognitive ability on student achievement. Every study that has included a valid measure of teacher verbal or cognitive ability has found that it accounts for more variance in student achievement than any other measured characteristic of teachers (e.g., Greenwald, Hedges, & Lane, 1996; Ferguson & Ladd, 1996; Kain & Singleton, 1996; Ehrenberg & Brewer, 1994).[xiii] (Page 5)
Schools of education
It might be supposed that there is no need for anything like a value-added analysis to assess the effectiveness of new teachers. Most new teachers come into their positions after having graduated from a college- or university-based teacher training program. These programs, many of them offered by excellent colleges and universities, all declare their commitment in one fashion or another to admitting and training excellent students through programs that meet standards shaped by the criteria of national and state-level agencies and professional associations. In completing their training programs, moreover, teacher candidates are graded in the courses they take and evaluated in their various field experience and student teaching assignments. The record of their performance in this preparatory work—grade transcripts, student teaching evaluations, and letters of recommendation, for example—might seem to constitute an adequate proxy measure of the effectiveness that will mark their subsequent work as new hires in classrooms of their own. That certainly is a widespread assumption among teacher educators, and it has been, at least by default, a guiding assumption for school district officials as well.
The problem with the assumption is that skepticism about schools of education is also widespread. Researchers and other observers over many years have faulted schools of education—the courses they offer and the academic ability of the teacher candidates that they attract—for offering weak courses and programs. Economist Thomas Sowell, writing 15 years ago, is one such critic. “The biggest liability of the American public school system,” he wrote, “is the legal requirement that education courses be taken by people who seek careers as tenured teachers. These courses are unanimously condemned—by scholars who have studied them, teachers who have taken them, and anyone else with the misfortune to have encountered them.”[xiv]
Studies have consistently shown that high school seniors who intend to major in education have earned lower scores on college admissions tests of verbal and quantitative ability than other college-bound students.[xv] While these results are frequently reported, they are somewhat misleading. College students frequently change their majors. In fact, a report published by the Education Testing Service (ETS) found that the average SAT and ACT scores of potential teachers who actually passed the Praxis I exam were equal to or slightly higher than the average scores of college-bound seniors.[xvi] (Praxis I is the Pre-Professional Skills Test designed to measure basic skills in reading, writing and mathematics.) This would seem to be a much better indicator of the academic ability of potential teachers.
But problems of academic quality within teacher training programs remain. The same ETS study also presented other interesting findings. For example, teachers who passed the Praxis II exams score significantly lower on the SAT than do other college graduates. (Praxis II measures knowledge of specific K-12 subjects.) Math SAT scores vary considerably by gender, with females scoring lower than males. The ETS report notes that nearly 75 percent of the overall teaching population is female.
In assessing the claims and counter-claims about teacher training programs and their students, it is important to recognize that teacher candidates are not simply a lump called “teachers.” In fact, teachers are not an academically homogeneous group. As an illustration, consider the data summarized in Figure 1 from a 2007 ETS study.[xvii] See that panel on the left side of Figure 1. It shows that teacher candidates in such disciplines as English, science, foreign languages and social studies who pass the Praxis II exam have higher verbal ability, on average, than the average for all college graduates, as measured by the SAT. However, teacher candidates in physical education, special education, and elementary education who pass the Praxis II exam have lower average verbal ability than the average for all college graduates, again as measured by the SAT. Since elementary school teachers constitute the largest single group of licensed teachers, this is not a small matter, given what we know about the importance of attracting teachers who have high verbal ability.
The right side panel of Figure 1 shows that math SAT scores for mathematics and science teachers are well above those for other college graduates. The data in both panels of Figure 1 also show that there has been an increase in these scores from 1994-1997 to 2002-2005. These findings are attributed to improved teacher quality policies at the state and federal levels, including No Child Left Behind.
Criticism of schools of education does not emanate exclusively from unfriendly sources outside the profession. Insiders also make strong contributions. Here are two examples, one provided by a distinguished research organization and another by the former president of Columbia Teachers College.
A massive report commissioned by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Panel on Research and Teacher Education recently (2005) concluded that there is very little empirical evidence supporting the value of formal teacher education.[xviii] Within higher education in the United States, the AERA is the dominant organization for education research. Reflecting on the 2005 report, one of the report’s authors said this in an editorial:
The panel’s report makes it clear that we do not have the empirical evidence demonstrating the positive impact of many of the polices that currently govern teacher education (e.g., teacher testing and accreditation) or of the curriculum and instructional practices that are common in teacher education programs across institutions (e.g., requiring courses in education foundations or using journaling as a way for teacher candidates to track and reflect on their developing practices). Likewise, the report reveals that there is not a clear empirical mandate for many of the reforms that are being advocated and/or implemented in state and national initiatives (e.g., moving teacher preparation outside of colleges and universities through the development of alternative routes and pathways into teaching or, along entirely different lines, improving collegiate teacher preparation through closer collaboration between education and arts and science faculty. Although there are extensive and, in some cases, persuasive rationales for these practices and reform policies, which are based on politics or “common sense,” or on professional consensus, they are not supported by empirical evidence about their efficacy.[xix]
The AERA panel suggests that certain historical reasons may explain the lack of empirical validation for training practices that are embraced fervently by many leaders in the profession. The panel notes, for example, that the field of teacher education is young and that doing rigorous research in areas of clinical practice is difficult and expensive. However, we have been training teachers in this country and in Wisconsin for a long time, and many evidence-based practices that have been identified by education researchers have never found their way into mainstream training programs. Similarly, questions surrounding the ability of large urban school districts to produce high levels of academic achievement have been with us for decades. It is therefore worth considering alternative explanations for the paucity of attention within schools of education to research that might actually tell us what it takes to train teachers to work effectively in urban settings. We would like to suppose that teacher educators have tried but not quite succeeded in efforts to identify and impart the requisite teaching skills. But perhaps they simply have not taken up that task.
Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, issued a recent report (2006) based on visits he and his team of researchers made to 28 colleges with teacher education programs. The research team obtained information from deans, faculty members, alumni, and school principals.[xx] They identified some schools with exemplary training programs—among them, Alverno College in Milwaukee, the University of Virginia, Stanford University, and Emporia State. Overall, however, Levine’s findings were sharply critical.
Levine describes teacher education as an “unruly” and “chaotic” field, lacking in standards and accountability and engaged in the “pursuit of irrelevance.”
The AERA panel and Arthur Levine fault teacher training programs for the weakness of their conceptual and empirical foundations; other critics emphasize a near obsession among teacher educators with the causes of the political left. Individually and institutionally, many teacher trainers declare that they are guided in their work by a commitment to large social and developmental goals associated with the concept of social justice. This concept, as teacher trainers tend to understand it, implies a left-leaning political stance on issues ranging from tax policy to energy policy, trade policy, immigration, and many other areas of advocacy. Sol Stern traces this embrace of the left, noting its expression in various forms of what is called teaching for social justice. It is a tendency supported in part by accreditation processes for schools of education. Schools of education seeking accreditation through NCATE must show how their teacher training programs incorporate NCATE’s social justice standards. As an example, Stern cites the teacher education program at Marquette University, which proclaims that it “has a commitment to social justice in schools and society.” It seeks to use education “to transcend the negative effects of the dominant culture.” It requires that all prospective teachers demonstrate a “desire to work for social justice, particularly in urban environments.”[xxi]
By itself, this left-leaning tendency is neither surprising nor problematic. Professors of English and history tend to be left-leaning, too, and many of them nonetheless do a fine job of teaching English and history. University professors in general are attracted to the political left. One study of more than 1600 full-time faculty members at 183 four-year schools found that 72 percent of faculty members at American colleges and universities are political liberals, while 15 percent are conservatives.[xxii] The imbalance can also be seen in declared party preferences. About 50 percent of college and university faculty members identify themselves as Democrats, while 13 percent identify themselves as Republicans.
Taken together with the profile of observed weaknesses in teacher training programs, however—weaknesses of the sort described in the AERA and Levine studies—there is something problematic about the widespread embrace of leftist ideology among teacher trainers. The problem is that this ideological orientation may provide an attractive distraction from the job that most parents and other citizens would regard as fundamental for teacher trainers. That fundamental job is to prepare smart and effective teachers equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to increase the academic achievement of their students. Teacher educators who do not concern themselves with imparting such knowledge and skills may still feel good about their work—may congratulate themselves, in fact, on their commitment to higher goals—if they focus their attention instead on topics, activities, and assignments cloaked in the rhetoric of social justice.
The teacher education program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee provides a case in point. We quote from the Core Guiding Principle for teacher education and other state certification programs at the UWM School of Education:
All programs at UWM leading to licensure by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction have adopted a unified guiding principle centered on advocating for and providing an equitable education to all students, within a culture of inspiration, high expectations, accountability and quality services. Individuals licensed through UWM demonstrate an understanding of the unique characteristics of urban contexts and keep issues of race, class, culture, and language at the forefront of their work. Candidates have substantive knowledge about the varieties of urban contexts and cultures, the forces that maintain poverty, and other powerful historic and contemporary beliefs and traditions that support discrimination in society. They understand how other social identities, including gender, disability, sexual orientation, and religion, intersect with the forces of poverty, cultural traditions, language, and racism and lead to inequity in teaching and learning.[xxiii]
This Core Guiding Principle makes it clear that UW-Milwaukee seeks to prepare teachers and other educators for work in urban schools. How is that to be done? By teaching new teachers how to improve their students’ achievement in academic areas, so that they can qualify for worthwhile jobs or postsecondary education? No. It is to be done by ensuring that issues of equity, race, class, and culture will be “at the forefront” of the enterprise. Thus teacher trainers who disdain teaching about effective instruction in order to emphasize social justice are simply putting first things first, according to their institution’s Core Guiding Principle.
The Core Guiding Principle is not the sole source of guidance for teacher trainers at UWM. It is supplemented by a list of ten teacher standards that tell what program graduates are supposed to know and know how to do. These standards reveal something general about the culture of Wisconsin’s schools of education, not merely the one at UWM, because the standards comply with those provided by Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Among the standards there is much that is worthwhile—e.g., program graduates should know how to communicate with families and they should hold high expectations for their students. But only one of the ten standards focuses on the disciplinary knowledge that should be expected of teacher candidates. And, despite certain rhetorical tributes to accountability, there is no reference in the Core Guiding Principle or the ten standards to the idea that teachers are themselves accountable for their ability to increase the academic achievement of their students.
By nearly every measure, MPS is doing a poor job of preparing young people to participate successfully in their community. There is disagreement about how to measure graduation rates in MPS, but everyone agrees that the rate is low. A report released by the Manhattan Institute in 2006 stated that 94 of the 100 largest school districts in the country had higher graduation rates than MPS.[xxiv] The rate for MPS, according to the Manhattan report, was about 45 percent. It was 58 percent in Philadelphia, 63 percent in New Orleans, and 50 percent in Chicago (for the class of 2003). A 2006 report sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation reported that the rate for MPS was 43 percent.[xxv] In 2007, MPS reported that its graduation rate was 68 percent.[xxvi] None of these reports are good news.
It is also widely reported that MPS students lag in their performance on state tests. In 2006, 28 percent of MPS tenth-grade students performed at the minimal level on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) in reading, and 25 percent performed at the basic level. For tenth-graders statewide, the averages were 9 percent minimal and 14 percent basic. MPS African American students scored lower still, with 33 percent at the minimal level and 27 percent at the basic level. It gets worse in math. In 2006, 45 percent of MPS tenth-grade students performed at the minimal level on the math portion of the WKCE, compared to only 14 percent at the minimal level statewide.
Given this context of low achievement levels, few would disagree with the proposition that attracting and retaining high quality teachers should be a key strategy for improvement. The research we have cited about teacher quality is consistent, in this matter, with common sense. However, Wisconsin provides no easy way—by website postings, for example—for school districts to learn about the quality of newly certified teachers by reference to the track record of the several teacher training programs in the state. Thirty-two colleges and universities train hundreds of teachers every year in Wisconsin, and yet, as far as anyone can tell by looking at grade transcripts and student teaching evaluations, all graduates are of about the same quality. Nor is it possible to learn anything about teacher quality in Wisconsin by consulting reports published by the U.S. Department of Education.[xxvii] Because Wisconsin has been slow to implement teacher content testing as part of its teacher certification programs, the U.S. Department of Education, which provides abundant information relevant to teacher quality for most states, reports no data regarding Wisconsin.
This lack of transparency is a problem. All Wisconsin school districts should have access to objective measures of teacher quality. MPS, in particular, desperately needs to identify and retain high-quality teachers—teachers who can improve achievement among students who need it the most. It is bad enough that MPS must cope with familiar teacher recruitment and retention problems. High-quality teachers are increasingly reluctant to apply for positions in MPS. They are deterred, apparently, by concerns about working in unsafe environments in MPS.[xxviii] Milwaukee’s teacher residency requirement also contributes to the problem. MPS is one of only two major school districts in the nation (the other is Chicago) to have clung to a teacher residency requirement.[xxix] Add the problem of poor information about the teacher candidates who do apply, and the task of hiring good teachers looks extraordinarily difficult.
[i] Borsuk, Alan. Teach for American Considers Milwaukee. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (December 25, 2007), p. 3B.
[ii] Rivlin, Steven G., Eric A. Hanushek & John Kain. Teachers, Schools and Academic Achievement. University of Texas-Dallas Texas School Project, 2002.
[iii] Sanders, William L. and Horn, Sandra, P. Research Findings from the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) Database: Implications for Educational Evaluation and Research. Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education 12:3 (1998), p. 250.
[iv] Wright, S.P., S.P. Horn, and W.L.Sanders. Teacher and Classroom Context Effects on Student Achievement: Implications for Teacher Evaluation. Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education 11:1 (1997), p. 53.
[vi] Grover J. Whitehurst (2002) http://ies.ed.gov/director/speeches2002/03_05/2002_03_05a.asp
[vii] Rivlin, Steven G., Eric A. Hanushek & John Kain. Teachers, Schools and Academic Achievement. University of Texas-Dallas Texas School Project, 2002.
[viii] Scheerens. J. and R. Bosker. The Foundations of Educational Effectiveness. New York: Pergamon, 1997.
[ix] Haycock, K. Good Teaching Matters: How Well-Qualified Teaches Can Close the Gap. Washington D.C.: The Education Trust, 1998.
[x] Teachers' Perceptions and Expectations and the Black-White Test-score Gap. Working paper series / Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, 1997.
[xi] Ferguson,. R.F., and H. F. Ladd. How and Why Money Matters: An Analysis of Alabama Schools. Holding Schools Accountable: Performance-Based Reform in Education. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institute, 1996.
[xii] Goldhaber, D.D. and D.J. Brewer. (1996) Evaluating the Effect of Teacher Degree Level on Educational Performance. Developments in School Finance, p. 199-210. p. 206
[xiii] Whitehurst, Grover J. Research on Teacher Preparation and Professional Development. White House Conference on Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers (2002), p. 5.
[xiv] Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas. New York: The Free Press (1993), pp. 288-89.
[xv] The Academic Quality of Prospective Teachers: The Impact of Admissions and Licensure Testing. Princeton N.J.: Educational Testing Service, 1999.
[xvi] The Academic Quality of Prospective Teachers: The Impact of Admissions and Licensure Testing. Princeton NJ: Educational Testing Service.
[xvii] Gitomer, David H. Teacher Quality in a Changing Policy Landscape: Improvements in the Teacher Pool, Princeton New Jersey: Educational Testing Service, 2007.
[xviii] American Educational Research Association Panel on Research and Teacher Education. Studying Teacher Education. Washington D.C.: American Educational Research Association, 2005.
[xix] Cochran-Smith, Marilyn. Studying Teacher Education: What We Know and Need to Know. Journal of Teacher Education, 56: 4 (2005), pp. 303-04.
[xx] Levine, Arthur. Educating School Teachers: The Education Schools Project. http://www.edschools.org/pdf/Educating_Teachers_Report.pdf accessed December 2007
[xxi] Stern, Sol. Newest Ed School Humbug. New City Journal, 16:3 (Summer 2006), pp. 42-53.
[xxii] Rothman, Stanley, S. Lichter, S. Robert, and N. Nevitte. Politics and Professional Advancement Among College Faculty. The Forum, 3: 2 (2005) article 2. pp.1-16.
[xxiv] Greene, Jay P. and Winters, Marcus, A. Civics Report No. 48. Leaving Boys Behind: Public School Graduation Rates. New York: Manhattan Institute (April 2006).
[xxv] Education Week. Diplomas Count: An Essential Guide to Graduation Rates and Policy. EPE Research Center, 2006.
[xxvi] Office of Superintendent. Remarks on the 2007-2009 Wisconsin State Budget: Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Public Schools, 2007
[xxvii] U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education. The Secretary’s Fifth Annual Report on Teacher Quality: A Highly Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom. Washington D.C., 2006.
[xxviii] Borsuk, Alan J. Wanted: Top Teachers. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. December 3, 2007, pp. 1, 8A.
[xxix] Schug, Mark C. and Scott Niederjohn. The Milwaukee Teacher Residency Requirement: Why It’s Bad for Schools and Why It Won’t Go Away. Thiensville, WI: Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, 2005.
©2007 Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Inc. P.O. Box 487 Thiensville, WI 53092