This is the fourth post in our A Dozen Days, A Dozen Ways to Vote Your Profession series.
At issue: Of all school-based factors that affect student success, research shows that teacher quality is the most important. Despite pioneering the national accountability movement, Texas has lagged behind other states in terms of standards for becoming a teacher. Early on, state leaders embraced the concept of alternative certification pathways, but they failed to take necessary steps to ensure that all educators, regardless of how they become teachers in Texas, have the necessary content knowledge and foundational skills to be effective. In other words, the state’s minimum qualifications for admission to an educator preparation program and subsequent teacher certification have not been high enough to foster a high-quality educator workforce and raise the prestige of teaching. Taking advantage of our relatively low state standards, private educator preparation programs—including alternative certification programs—have flourished, but they have not always prepared their students adequately for the rigors of teaching. Here in Texas, the focus of lawmakers has too often been on “getting rid of bad teachers” on the back end instead of working to create more outstanding teachers on the front end.
It is time to elevate the stature of the education profession to match the high-outcome expectations we have for public school students: Texas must raise its standards for entrance into the profession in order to compete globally and keep up with rising accountability demands on our schools and students. The highest performing countries on international benchmarks have recognized that selective recruitment is essential. Singapore, for example, allows only the top one-third of its college graduates to even apply for teacher training programs. Finland accepts only 10 percent of its applicants for teacher training and then requires them to undergo five years of intensive schooling before they are allowed to teach. In South Korea, where teaching positions are highly competitive, schools recruit the top 5 percent of high school students to enter the education field. All three countries have greatly outperformed the U.S. on international measures such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The lesson for Texas: Educator preparation and certification should never operate as a “volume business,” cranking out new teachers who are ill-equipped to enter the classroom and setting them up for likely failure and frustration in their first few years on the job. The focus must shift from quantity to quality.
Texas also needs to invest in teacher quality: Initiatives for recruiting, training and retaining high-quality teachers are essential to the success of public education, but too often our elected officials have declined to fund those programs. ATPE has been advocating for a statewide, state-funded mentoring program for all new teachers, coupled with a rigorous training program and mentor stipends, incentives for districts to accommodate mentoring during the school day and strict quality control standards. We have provided state policymakers with an outline for the program and even pointed them toward federal funding sources to help defray its cost, but many legislators and statewide elected officials continue to believe it’s too expensive. We disagree, and so do the numbers: It has been estimated that teachers leaving the classroom cost the state of Texas half a billion dollars each year, making it well worth the smaller investment it would take to keep great teachers in the profession.
You can make a difference with your vote: Too frequently our efforts at reforms that would improve teacher recruitment, retention and quality have been thwarted by politicians who want to lower the standards for entrance into the profession and limit funding for public education overall. This is another area where hefty campaign contributions from wealthy businesspeople in the private sector have impeded progress. The only way to combat this problem is by electing candidates who truly understand what’s at stake and are willing to make sometimes hard decisions for the benefit of public education. Before you vote in this important primary election, research the candidates using our 2014 Races feature and find out if they are likely to support teacher quality measures such as mentoring and raising the bar for entrance into the education profession. Be an informed voter and help make a difference on March 4 or during early voting this week by supporting pro-public education candidates.
 According to the most recent 2012 PISA report, Singapore and Korea rank among the top five countries overall. Finland fell a bit to 12th on the list in 2012 but remains among the top five countries for reading scores. Meanwhile, the U.S. sits at 36th on the international list. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that the government of Singapore pays its teachers to earn 100 hours of professional development annually; Finland has no standardized testing; and Korea has some teachers earning seven-figure salaries.