Obama is poised to sign into law the $789 billion stimulus bill agreed to by Congress this week. The plan has a noteworthy amount – close to $100 billion according to the Christian Science Monitor — of federal education spending. While education spending does stimulate the economy, to be truly effective in raising incomes in the long term, the money should be used to improve education quality.
In an increasingly competitive global economy, high-quality education for American students has become critical for the nation’s future. Most agree that a key to achieving this aim is recruiting and retaining effective teachers, as detailed in an FOC policy brief on the quality of teaching. How to define capable teachers remains controversial. Some have proposed mandating master’s degrees; in contrast, others suggest completely eliminating incentives for continued graduate work. From the New York Times blog Room for Debate to The Future of Children’s Excellence in the Classroom issue, many question the value of teacher education in its current form and seek alternatives.
Education course work has long been part of initial teacher certification and ongoing professional development as a way to increase a teacher’s capacity and value. Although only 16 percent of teachers in their third year of teaching hold master’s degrees, 62 percent of teachers with over 20 years of experience have earned them. Schools encourage this process by providing higher pay incentives and allowing substitution of these courses for recertification requirements.
Lately, however, degree programs have been subject to scrutiny. In theory they ensure that teachers have sufficient subject area knowledge, experience with teaching, and abilities to promote learning through effective and innovations means. Often, however, these programs have been criticized for teaching irrelevant and non-transferable skills, lacking intellectual rigor, or failing to build new knowledge or abilities.
A recent The Future of Children volume examined whether these programs are valuable and have positive effects on student achievement. Research on master’s degrees and teacher quality has generally been inconclusive, according to The Future of Children article “The Effect of Certification and Preparation on Teacher Quality.” This ambiguity reflects the difficulty in 1) establishing whether programs cause improvement in teaching, 2) taking into account the inequity of teacher distribution (with better teachers migrating by choice to higher quality schools), and 3) isolating the effects of graduate degrees on students of different grade levels. As Heather Hill documents in her article “Learning in the Teacher Workforce,” however, some improvement in math scores has been shown for teachers with graduate degrees in math. So far this finding has not been replicated in other subject areas, but it offers potential for more research.
While graduate work has the potential to prepare teachers and increase their students’ performance, recent analysis suggests that it is not currently meeting these goals. Although more research is needed, studies so far suggest that schools should seek teachers with and encourage the pursuit of graduate degrees in the teacher’s primary area of instruction. Programs such as the master’s in education should submit themselves to more rigorous testing to find what skills and knowledge can help teachers positively influence their students’ learning. Higher quality graduate programs and a more thorough understanding of their effects on student learning will lead to better education for our children.
As our recent volumes on education show, in its current form education perpetuates rather than compensates for existing income inequalities. This happens for three reasons: 1) the K through 12 education system is simply not very strong and thus not an effective way to break the link between a poor parental background and a child’s eventual success; 2) because K–12 education is financed largely at the state and local level, resources devoted to education are closely linked with where people live so poor children tend to go to poor schools; and 3) access both to a quality preschool experience and to higher education continues to depend heavily on family resources.
In the policy brief, “Opportunity in America: The Role of Education,” Isabel Sawhill proposes a four part strategy to increase the ability of education to raise income and increase mobility: 1) investment in high quality preschool; 2) setting clear (and perhaps federal) standards for what children K–12 should know; 3) increasing federal funding of education and linking this funding to improved school performance; and 4) encouraging greater use of proven instructional methods.
It is unclear at this point whether the billions set aside for education in the current stimulus package does all this. For example, early education is funded, but through the Head Start program which has not proven as high quality as either the most successful demonstration programs or some of the programs used by more affluent parents. Federal money for education is provided – in unprecedented amounts – but just a small portion is tied to uniform standards for performance and it unclear whether any is linked to mandatory use of research-based curricula.
Education can be instrumental in helping students gain the skills they need to become self-sufficient, working adults. However, it must be quality education. The jury is still out on whether the stimulus bill making its way to President Obama’s desk creates the sort of system that will produce results.
Based on The Future of Children: Opportunity in American, Eds. Isabel Sawhill and Sara McLanahan and “Opportunity in America: The Role of Education,” by Isabel Sawhill.