Research & Commentary: Efforts to Improve Teacher Quality

Published November 21, 2012

The United States has increased its teaching force 250 percent since 1950, reducing teacher-student ratios from 1:22 to 1:15, but the expansion has not brought higher teacher quality.

Teachers tend to have below-average SAT, ACT, LSAT, and GRE scores, and statistics show their college coursework is among the least challenging available. Education majors must take more remedial college coursework than their counterparts in humanities and social sciences.

Most teacher preparation and certification programs require prospective teachers to spend most of their time learning teaching methods rather than the content they are expected teach. Traditional teacher preparation programs emphasize education and social theories, which research has demonstrated are ineffective teaching methods.

Teachers who enter the profession from content-specific majors or careers have higher personal and student test scores than those who enter from a traditional education major and certification background.

Proponents of traditional teacher certification and preparation say the credentials and programs are necessary to ensure students have qualified teachers. Unfortunately, say education reformers, research shows education school coursework and certification requirements do little if anything to improve teaching quality. Teachers who enter the profession by that route do not raise student achievement higher than those without traditional credentials. The professional barriers also mean bright students who are frustrated by busywork and box-checking are less likely to choose teaching.

The low quality of people entering and remaining in the teaching profession can be attributed to several factors, including policies that discourage people from taking up teaching as a second career or prompt teachers to leave for other professions, the lack of opportunities for good teachers to earn more money and move up the career ladder, the number of other invigorating professions available to high achievers, and rapidly growing administrative costs and expensive public pension systems that sap money that might instead offer teachers higher salaries.

The following documents offer more information about teacher quality.


Smart Chicago Teachers Hold the Key to School Reform
The average Chicago teacher performed more poorly in school than the average Illinois student, notes Maureen Martin on the Heartland Institute blog. That’s a problem because higher teacher test scores are linked to higher student achievement. The trend holds true across the country, but leaders and educators differ on how to address it.

Do Piano Teachers Need to Know How to Play the Piano?
The achievement level marked “proficiency” on the nation’s most respected test is significantly higher than what teachers, on average, reached themselves, notes John Chubb in Education Next. This means our public schools ask teachers to help students reach standards far above what they achieved themselves. This is like asking ordinary pianists to train virtuosos, he says. The nation can’t fire its way to a great teaching pool, but must instead elevate teaching standards. He recommends a much smaller and better-paid teaching force supported by technology; a system of professional development that drives out inferior providers and rewards success; and giving principals increased responsibility for teacher development.

Digest of Education Statistics, Table 155
This table from the National Center for Education Statistics shows college-bound seniors’ SAT mean scores by intended college major in selected years from 1995–96 through 2010–11. The most recent statistics show students who intend to major in education score significantly below average on the SAT, a trend that has remained consistent since 1995.

Leveling Up: Narrowing the Teacher Academic Capital Gap in Illinois
Teachers with the lowest academic achievement are most predominant in Illinois schools that enroll the most disadvantaged students, even though this gap has narrowed in recent years, conclude the authors of this policy report for the Illinois Education Research Council. Schools that hire and retain the brightest teachers also accomplish increases in student academic achievement. Nearly half the teachers in Illinois scored near the national average on the ACT.

Teacher Quality in a Changing Policy Landscape
Teaching candidates who take the Praxis tests required for certification scored slightly higher than average on the SAT in 2005, an improvement over a decade previous, the Educational Testing Service concludes. Teachers who do not major in education or education-related fields score higher on both the Praxis teaching tests and the SAT. Those who take alternative routes to teacher certification also have higher SAT scores. Elementary, special needs, and physical education teachers have the lowest scores, on average.

Grade Inflation for Education Majors and Low Standards for Teachers
Students who take education classes at universities receive significantly higher grades than students who take classes in every other academic discipline, documents Cory Koedel in an American Enterprise Institute study. The only reasonable explanation for this and other data is low grading standards. This likely reduces prospective teachers’ accumulation of skills during university training and contributes to a culture of low standards for educators.

Teacher Training, Teacher Quality, and Student Achievement
Despite decades of research, there is no consensus on what factors enhance or even indicate teacher quality, write Douglas Harris and Tim Sass in a working paper for the Urban Institute. Their analysis of data from a unique database in Florida allowed them to compare student achievement based on their teachers’ professional development and training. They found only two types of teacher training increase productivity: content-focused professional development is positively associated with productivity in middle and high school math, and on-the-job training acquired through experience correlated with increased effectiveness in teaching elementary reading and elementary and middle-school math. Their study supports earlier research that has found teacher certification, education degrees, and advanced degrees do not improve teacher quality, whereas focusing on content and classroom experience does.

Who Needs Mathematicians for Math, Anyway?
As long as test creators, technology salesmen, and math educators dominate the development of math curricula and determine the pedagogy used, U.S. K-12 students will continue to perform abysmally, writes Sandra Stotsky in City Journal. These gatekeepers enforce theories that lack any evidence of success and emphasize political and social ends instead of math mastery. New-math proponents champion “conceptual understanding,” an idea that has no definition or possibility for measurement. In trying to make math “relevant” to students, it fails to teach students math, she writes. This threatens the nation’s long-term prosperity.

Teacher Certification Reconsidered: Stumbling for Quality
State requirements that public school teachers complete teacher certification are neither efficient nor effective in ensuring a competent teaching force, concludes this report from the Abell Foundation. The authors review every published study or paper and many unpublished dissertations cited by prominent national advocates of teacher certification. They conclude the academic research attempting to link teacher certification with student achievement is astonishingly deficient: It is not statistically valid, not peer-reviewed, is based on subjective measures such as interviews with teachers about their own quality, and cites and is cited selectively. Scientifically valid research shows teacher certification does not improve teacher quality. The teacher attribute consistently most related to raising student achievement is verbal ability.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].