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teacher effectiveness

Is it possible to ensure that all teachers are effective from the first day they walk into the classroom to work? Teacher quality policies assume that it is. But what if it isn’t?

That’s the question Chad Aldeman and I explore in two new reports, published earlier this week by Bellwether Education Partners.

Decades of education-reform efforts focused on trying to improve the quality of teacher preparation to increase the effectiveness of first-year teachers.

Related: California faces a dire teacher shortage. Should other states worry, too?

To date, most reforms have done so through so-called inputs. These reforms try to precisely define who can become a teacher, and what sort of preparation she must complete before entering a classroom. Some states, for example, require that programs only admit teacher candidates with a certain GPA or SAT or ACT score. Other states impose coursework requirements, like specific content credits and clinical experiences.

“Perhaps most importantly, we must give people better information to make more informed choices, to drive continuous improvement, and to invest in learning — to the extent that we can — what makes a good teacher.”

Still others have sought to improve preparation by focusing on outcomes instead. It’s an elegant theory of change: States loosen input requirements and give providers more freedom over design, and then make decisions about program quality based on the success of their teachers. States identify programs as poor, satisfactory or excellent, and “consumers” — prospective teachers and potential employers — can act on that information.

But there are flaws in all of these efforts — such serious flaws that it’s unclear if we’ll ever be able to guarantee a teacher will be ready on Day One.

To begin with, there’s little evidence that the carefully crafted inputs matter much. Take the research on GPA and SAT scores. Some studies suggest that these screens can predict teacher effectiveness, but the differences are small, and there’s no clear tipping point guiding states on where to set their expectations. The evidence on coursework and clinical experience, certification requirements and certification pathways is even weaker. In other words, some great teachers are products of a traditional preparation program with a standard student teaching experience, while others do just as well with barely any prior training. The reverse is equally true: Some bad teachers completed well-designed traditional preparation programs, and others went through alternative certification programs. We don’t know the mix of inputs that promises an effective teacher.

Related: Stakes are high for a teacher-parent fighting for better education in Detroit Public Schools

On the other hand, switching our focus to outcomes won’t guarantee quality, either. An outcomes-based accountability system assumes that we can discern meaningful differences across preparation programs. Yet recent studies from Missouri and Texas suggest that we can’t. In Missouri, researchers reviewed three years of classroom performance records for more than 1,300 teachers, all of whom had recently graduated from one of the state’s major preparation programs. In the Texas study, researchers looked at nearly 6,300 new math teachers and 5,000 new reading teachers from 100 preparation programs of all types. The researchers in both studies reached the same conclusion: the differences between programs are very small — practically indistinguishable — while almost all of the variation in preparation quality occurs within programs. Studies from North Carolina and Washington State found similar results.

The research on inputs and outcomes is tightly linked. Because states regulate inputs so closely, there’s little incentive — and considerable risk — to do anything different. So teacher prep providers, with some notable exceptions, generally operate programs that look similar, and those similar programs produce completers of a similar caliber.

The “black box” nature of teaching further exacerbates this issue. There’s a good deal of research showing preparation programs what not to do, but very few guideposts for creating a high-quality program. Even when we know what effective teaching looks like — for early language and literacy, for example — it’s not clear that programs can prepare future teachers in that content while complying with input requirements. So until we commit to a drastically different approach to teacher preparation, we can expect similar results.

Ultimately, as a field we should be open to the possibility that we’ll never find the right cocktail of requirements — and that maybe the idea of a “Ready on Day One” teacher is an oasis that we’ll never reach. Instead, we should do what we can to make teaching a more appealing profession. Let’s make teaching a less risky proposition by reducing the amount of time and money it takes to become a teacher. Let’s enable people try the profession in a low-stakes environment. Let’s take away the imprimatur of fully licensed teachers on Day One, and instead rely on performance-based licensure to signal teacher effectiveness. Perhaps most importantly, we must give people better information to make more informed choices, to drive continuous improvement, and to invest in learning — to the extent that we can — what makes a good teacher.

Ashley LiBetti Mitchel is a senior education analyst at Bellwether Education partners.

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