States Look to ‘Improving the Pipeline’ on Teacher Quality

Although David Rock didn’t pursue his own dream to become a teacher, he is now using his position as the dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi to train and graduate some of the best new instructors in the country. To that end he has pioneered the Mississippi Excellence in Teaching program thanks to a $13 million grant from Robert M Hearin Support Foundation that will give 20 incoming students full scholarships in exchange for a commitment to teach within the state for the first five years after they graduate.

School around the country are having a difficult time retaining new teachers as more than half typically leave the profession before their first five years are up. That is the reason why MET is asking for such a long commitment – the popular Teach for America only requires three years – since learning on the job is a large part of what makes a teacher successful in the long run.

And MET gradates will get a lot of chances to learn, since they’ll be assigned to some of the toughest schools in the state – those located in minority and low-income neighborhoods.

While much of the conversation in recent years about improving education has focused on the performance of teachers in the classroom, efforts in Mississippi and elsewhere reflect a new emphasis on improving the quality of future teachers and keeping the good ones in the profession. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is pushing the state to fund a program similar to Rock’s, but for more students. Bryant, a Republican, has also challenged public colleges to “raise the bar” for new teachers by increasing entrance standards for education programs and giving top students an incentive to enter the profession.

Bryant isn’t the only one who has expressed concerns with low admissions requirements for many teachers colleges. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Jack Markell of Delaware have raised similar issues. Terry Branstad, Iowa’s Republican governor, wants to go even further. He is proposing reimbursing the tuition of the most successful graduates who also agree to teach in the state for five years after graduation.

Those who are pushing for these changes are calling them “improving the pipeline,” and unlike most other facets of education reform, this is drawing support from every side of the ideological divide.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Joel Klein, former head of New York City’s school system, have called for a creation of a ‘bar exam’ that would rate teachers after graduation to assess their fitness for the job.

Some, however, question how realistic such a standard would be in the United States. Finland, for example, subsidizes a master’s degree in education for all its teachers. But Finland has a population of just over 5 million, more than 60 times smaller than the U.S.

Others worry that a growing reliance on standardized tests for admissions to teaching programs could make teacher pools even less diverse. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education estimates that students in education programs are 82 percent white.