News Story

Analysis: Can We Build Better Teachers?

Studies Suggest That We Can't.

Another study was released this month showing that teacher professional development programs are no guarantor of higher student achievement. The research compared middle school math teachers who were enrolled in an intensive professional development program with teachers who were not and found that students of teachers receiving the extra training failed to perform any better than students of teachers in the control group. This same method was employed by a study a few years ago that found professional development to be just as inept at raising student reading scores. 

This research calls into question a Michigan law requiring all teachers to receive a minimum of five days of professional development annually. Many of the activities that qualify as professional development have little to do with improving student performance anyway and are less intensive than the ones used in the aforementioned studies. Additionally, state law allows school districts to count up to 51 hours of teacher professional development as part of 1,098 required hours of pupil instruction, meaning these days often come at the expense of school's limited instructional time.

These studies support the evidence showing that the best predictor of a teacher's ability to raise student achievement is the teachers' own academic ability in the subjects they teach, not how many degrees they've earned or time they logged in professional development training. Unfortunately, this factor contributes very little to determining who becomes a state-certified teacher and which of these are subsequently hired.

Not surprisingly then, a separate, new study out of Michigan State University found that new math teachers in the United States are not as well prepared as similar teachers in other nations. The nations with the best-prepared math teachers are ones where future teachers spend the most time actually studying and mastering mathematics and not taking as many courses in things like pedagogical theory.

Of all the things within the schools' control that impact student achievement, teacher quality is the most important. These studies cast doubts on whether schools can transform their ineffective teachers into high-performing ones through professional development programs. Instead of spending time, energy and resources on these programs, schools would do better to attract and retain teachers who have proven to excel academically in the subjects that they teach.

Merit pay systems would be the best way to achieve this goal. To attract and retain high-performing teachers, schools could offer higher salaries to new teachers who have demonstrated mastery of their subject and raise the salaries of those teachers who consistently raise student achievement by a value-added measure. 

Of course, paying teachers differentially is staunchly opposed by teachers unions. They would prefer teachers remain paid like assembly line workers with a "single salary schedule," declaring it must be good because it's as old-fashioned as "Mom and apple pie," and no one would want do away with moms or apple pie.

Nevertheless, if schools want to raise student achievement, they must be able attract teachers to the profession who have the necessary skills, and retain only those that actually do. Until then, we should expect student achievement to remain flat, as it has for the past 40 years.


Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.