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Teacher Quality: A Report on The Preparation and Qualifications of Public School Teachers
NCES: 1999080
January 1999

Executive Summary


In his 1997 State of the Union Address, President Clinton issued a "Call to Action" that included as a priority improving the quality of teachers in every American classroom. President Clinton's speech reflects growing concern over the condition of education and the nation's need for excellent teachers. The nation's educational system must provide our children with the knowledge, information, and skills needed to compete in a complex international marketplace. Good teachers are the hallmark of such an educational system; they are integral to children's intellectual and social development.

In response to these concerns and expectations, this study, undertaken by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), using its Fast Response Survey System (FRSS), provides a profile of the quality of the nation's teachers. Providing such a profile is not an easy task. Teacher quality is a complex phenomenon, and there is little consensus on what it is or how to measure it. For example, definitions range from those that focus on what should be taught and how knowledge should be imparted to the kinds of knowledge and training teachers should possess. There are, however, two broad elements that most observers agree characterize teacher quality: (1) teacher preparation and qualifications, and (2) teaching practices. The first refers to preservice learning (e. g., postsecondary education, certification) and continued learning (e. g., professional development, mentoring). The second refers to the actual behaviors and practices that teachers exhibit in their classrooms (U. S. Department of Education, 1996a). Of course, these elements of teacher quality are not independent; excellent teacher preparation and qualifications should lead to exemplary teaching behaviors and practices.

This FRSS report is based on current NCES efforts to collect data on the first of these elements (i. e., teacher preparation and qualifications), using a nationally representative survey of full-time public school teachers whose main teaching assignment is in English/ language arts, social studies/ social sciences, foreign language, mathematics, or science, or who teach a self-contained classroom. Specifically, it includes indicators of preservice and continued learning (e. g., degrees held, certification, teaching assignment, professional development opportunities, and collaboration with other teachers). In addition, because schools and communities play an important role in shaping and maintaining high-quality teachers, this study examines the work environments in which educators teach (e. g., formal induction procedures for new teachers, parental support).

This report is timely in light of recent concerns over the quality of our educational system and our teachers. Teachers' professional preparation (as well as their working conditions) has been identified as fundamental to improving elementary and secondary education (National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1996). At the core of educational reforms to raise standards, reshape curricula, and restructure the way schools operate is the call to reconceptualize the practice of teaching. Teachers are being asked to learn new methods of teaching, while at the same time they are facing the greater challenges of rapidly increasing technological changes and greater diversity in the classroom.

The FRSS survey indicates that currently less than half of American teachers report feeling "very well prepared" to meet many of these challenges:

  • Although many educators and policy analysts consider educational technology a vehicle for transforming education, relatively few teachers reported feeling very well prepared to integrate educational technology into classroom instruction (20 percent).
  • While 54 percent of the teachers taught limited English proficient or culturally diverse students, and 71 percent taught students with disabilities, relatively few teachers who taught these students (about 20 percent) felt very well prepared to meet the needs of these students. Their feelings of preparedness did not differ by teaching experience.
  • Only 28 percent of teachers felt very well prepared to use student performance assessment techniques; 41 percent reported feeling very well prepared to implement new teaching methods, and 36 percent reported feeling very well prepared to implement state or district curriculum and performance standards.

This national profile of teacher preparation, qualifications, and work environments provides a context for understanding why many teachers do not report feeling very well prepared to meet many of the challenges they currently face in their classrooms. Key findings are provided in three major areas: (1) preservice learning and teaching assignment; (2) continued learning; and (3) supportive work environment.

Key Findings

Preservice Learning and Teaching Assignment

Growing concern that a number of the nation's teachers are underqualified to teach our children has focused attention on their preservice learning. For example, concern regarding preservice learning has been directed toward teachers' postsecondary degrees- that is, the idea that teachers, particularly secondary teachers, should have an academic major rather than a general education degree (Ravitch, 1998). In addition, certification policies have drawn criticism- specifically, that a growing number of the nation's teachers are entering classrooms with emergency or temporary certification (Riley, 1998). Finally, attention is increasingly directed toward teaching assignments- that is, teachers being assigned to teach subjects that do not match their training or education (U. S. Department of Education, 1996b). Results of the 1998 FRSS survey indicate that:

  • Virtually all teachers had a bachelor's degree, and nearly half (45 percent) had a master's degree. More high school teachers had an undergraduate or graduate major in an academic field (66 percent), compared with elementary school teachers (22 percent) and middle school teachers (44 percent).
  • Most of the teachers (92 percent and 93 percent, for departmentalized and general elementary, respectively) were fully certified in the field of their main teaching assignment. However, emergency and temporary certification was higher among teachers with 3 or fewer years of experience compared to teachers with more teaching experience. For example, 12 percent of general elementary classroom teachers with 3 or fewer years of experience had emergency or temporary certification, whereas less than 1 percent of general elementary classroom teachers with 10 or more years of experience had emergency or temporary certification. The results are similar for departmentalized teachers.
  • Despite the fact that the measure of out-of-field teaching used in this report is conservative- it only includes teachers' main teaching assignments in core fields- the results indicate that a number of educators were teaching out of field. For example, the percent of teachers in grades 9 through 12 who reported having an undergraduate or graduate major or minor in their main teaching assignment field was 90 percent for mathematics teachers, 94 percent for science teachers, and 96 percent for teachers in English/ language arts, social studies/ social science, and foreign language. This means that 10 percent of mathematics teachers, 6 percent of science teachers, and 4 percent of English/ language arts, foreign language, and social studies/ social science teachers in grades 9 through 12 were teaching out of field. The percent of teachers who reported having an undergraduate or graduate major or minor in their main teaching assignment field was significantly lower for teachers of grades 7 through 12 than for teachers of grades 9 through 12 for mathematics (82 percent), science (88 percent), English/ language arts (86 percent), and social studies/ social sciences (89 percent), indicating that teachers in grades 7 and 8 are less likely to be teaching in field than are teachers in grades 9 through 12.

Continued Learning: Professional Development and Teacher Collaboration

In order to meet the changing demands of their jobs, high-quality teachers must be capable and willing to continuously learn and relearn their trade. Professional development and collaboration with other teachers are strategies for building educators' capacity for effective teaching, particularly in a profession where demands are changing and expanding. However, traditional approaches to professional development (e. g., workshops, conferences) have been criticized for being relatively ineffective because they typically lack connection to the challenges teachers face in their classrooms, and they are usually short term. Research suggests that unless professional development programs are carefully designed and implemented to provide continuity between what teachers learn and what goes on in their classrooms and schools, these activities are not likely to produce any long-lasting effects on either teacher competence or student outcomes (Fullan with Stiegelbauer, 1991). In addition to quality professional development, peer collaboration has also been recognized as important for teachers' continuous learning. The 1998 survey indicates that:

  • Virtually all teachers participated in professional development activities (99 percent) and at least one collaborative activity (95 percent) in the last 12 months. Participation in professional development activities typically lasted from 1 to 8 hours, or the equivalent of 1 day or less of training. Teachers were most likely to participate in professional development activities focused toward areas that reformers emphasize (e. g., implementing state or district curriculum and performance standards, integrating technology into the grade or subject taught, using student performance assessment techniques).
  • Nineteen percent of teachers had been mentored by another teacher in a formal relationship; 70 percent of teachers who were mentored at least once a week reported that it improved their teaching "a lot."
  • Increased time spent in professional development and collaborative activities was associated with the perception of significant improvements in teaching. For every content area of professional development, a larger proportion of teachers who participated for more than 8 hours believed it improved their teaching "a lot" compared with teachers who participated for 8 hours or less (Figure E). For example, teachers who spent more than 8 hours in professional development on in-depth study in the subject area of their main teaching assignment were more likely than those who spent 1 to 8 hours to report that participation in the program improved their teaching a lot (41 percent versus 12 percent). Moreover, teachers who participated in common planning periods for team teachers at least once a week were more likely than those who participated a few times a year to report that participation improved their teaching a lot (52 percent versus 13 percent).

Supportive Work Environment

Teachers' work environment is the final aspect of teacher quality addressed in this report. In addition to teacher learning, one key factor to understanding teacher quality is to focus on what happens to teachers once they enter the work force, including if they receive support from the schools and communities in which they work and from the parents of the children they teach. The 1998 FRSS survey indicates that:

  • One-third of teachers had participated in an induction program when they first began teaching. However, newer teachers were more likely to have participated in some kind of induction program at the beginning of their teaching careers than were more experienced teachers (65 percent of teachers with 3 or fewer years of experience versus 14 percent of teachers with 20 or more years of experience). This FRSS survey did not elicit information regarding the intensity or usefulness of the induction programs.
  • Teachers perceived relatively strong collegial support for their work; 63 percent strongly agreed that other teachers shared ideas with them that were helpful in their teaching. In addition, many teachers also felt supported by the school administration, with 55 percent agreeing strongly that the school administration supported them in their work and 47 percent agreeing strongly that goals and priorities for the school were clear.
  • Teachers perceived somewhat less support from parents than from other teachers and the school administration. Only one-third of teachers agreed strongly that parents supported them in their efforts to educate their children.
  • Collegial, school, and parental support varied by the instructional level of the school, with elementary school teachers perceiving stronger support than high school teachers.

The results of this survey provide a national profile of teacher quality, specifically focused on teachers' learning (both preservice and continued) and the environments in which they work. Included is important information regarding teachers' education, certification, teaching assignments, professional development, collaboration, and supportive work environment. In addition, comparisons by instructional level and poverty level of the school provide information about the distribution of teacher quality. This information provides a context for understanding why few teachers report feeling very well prepared to meet the challenges they face in their classrooms. This report is the first in a series of biennial reports that will be undertaken by NCES. Thus, the information provided here should provide a benchmark for these important dimensions of teacher quality and preparation.