Connecting some Teacher Quality, Leadership & Ed School Dots

Posted on October 23, 2009

A frequent, but much debated conclusion from teacher quality research is that teachers’ own academic ability, measured by test scores or even more bluntly the “competitiveness” of the colleges teachers attended as undergraduates, is associated with student outcomes. This occurs even when we use such crude classifications as the Barrons Guide rating system. In recent, exceptionally methodologically strong piece, Boyd, Lankford, Loeb and Wyckoff found:

“Furthermore, almost half of the teachers in the most effective quintile (based on student outcomes) graduated from a college ranked competitive or higher by Barron’s, compared to only ten percent of the teachers in the least effective quintile.”(p. 23)

Okay, for some this may hurt, and smacks of elitism. But nonetheless, it is a strong and relatively consistent finding which we should likely give some attention.

This finding is highly relevant to Arne Duncan’s talk yesterday at Teachers College, Columbia University where he took aim at the role of university based preparation programs in Education. Notably, Duncan referred to related work by these very authors, but did not mention this finding. In an effort to be egalitarian, Duncan promoted the virtues of institutions like Teachers College but also those like Emporia State in Kansas.

As I noted in my previous post, one thing we know is that the majority of teachers come through relatively non-competitive undergraduate colleges (on a 6 point rating system, from non-competitive, less competitive, competitive, very competitive, highly competitive, most competitive). On average, public school teachers come from the less competitive and competitive categories (about 2/3 of all teachers in these two categories alone) far more so than the highly and most competitive (about 6.5%). So too do most college students generally. That’s just the way the higher education system is distributed.

Teachers also come in large numbers – 42% – from 1994 carnegie classification – Comprehensive I – colleges and increasingly from less selective liberal arts colleges (carnegie 1994 Liberal Arts II colleges). And these Carnegie classifications from 1994 are somewhat associated with Barrons ratings. In short, the system of teacher education, nationwide, is not set up to produce large numbers of teachers who have the attributes that authors above find to be associated with higher student outcomes. A teacher preparation or administrator preparation program is only as good as its students.

Other authors have argued that the dominance of non-selective colleges in preparing teachers and higher costs of pursing teaching through more selective colleges creates a disincentive for academically strong high school students to pursue teaching. Add this to relatively low salaries, and the problem is exacerbated. Perhaps its the PIPELINE and system as a whole and not so much the individual institutions and prep programs that need reforming. Perhaps we need some incentives to encourage academically talented students to pursue teaching and some incentives to encourage the “highly and most competitive colleges” to get in the game of teacher preparation. At the same time, we may need to make some tough policy decisions about academically weak undergraduate and graduate institutions which have increased their role over time.

An interesting twist related to teacher academic preparation is that principals with stronger academic backgrounds seem more likely to recruit and retain teachers with stronger academic backgrounds ( So, we’ve got to find some way to get stronger principals into schools where they are needed most, and make sure there is a supply of stronger teachers produced through a better pipeline, from which those principals can build strong teams.

One problem here is that rather than becoming more concentrated in strong academic institutions over time, educational administration programs have become more distributed across more diverse… and quite honestly academically weaker institutions. For example, between 1993 and 2003, comprehensive colleges went from producing about 3% of education leadership doctorates to about 25% (

So why does that matter? How does this finding relate in any way to the fact that principals with stronger academic backgrounds (measured crudely by Barrons ratings of undergrad colleges) are more likely to hire teachers with stronger backgrounds, and those teachers are shown to make a difference? Isn’t it likely that there exists no relationship between graduate preparation and undergraduate preparation, and that we should be unconcerned that comprehensive colleges are the ones producing the doctorates? Well, again the dots connect logically. As it turns out, we show in the same article above that about 22 to 25% of doctoral recipients from Top 20 ranked (US News, of all things) education schools and 13% to 15% of doctoral recipients at all Research Universities attended highly or most selective undergraduate colleges, compared to only 5% to 10% of doctoral recipients in comprehensive colleges.

Yes, these are relatively harsh and elitist realities. And yes, I am implying that having a strong academic background is likely an important attribute for someone who wishes to lead an educational institution. That seems to make sense.

In his speech yesterday, Arne Duncan invoked the usual comparison to medical training:

The point, of course, was to emphasize the importance of clinical training. But, let us not forget that the medical model relies on two critical prerequisites to clinical training – 1) highly selective entrance criteria and 2) successful completion of rigorous undergraduate + 2 years of rigorous content upload of basic sciences and other relevant curriculum. Without academically strong candidates to begin with, the model fails. Without rigorous up-front information uploading, and students who can handle it, the model fails. The medical model is equally reliant on all of its parts, not just the clinical training.

Just connecting some dots here. Cheers.

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