A new superhero has appeared in education folklore and he’s cast a powerful shadow on policy discussions about improving teacher quality: The NASA scientist eager to doff his lab coat and become a high school physics teacher, if only there weren’t so many obstacles in his way.
So revered is this mythology that many states, including Georgia, have made it much easier for people to enter teaching through what are known as alternative or lateral paths that ease the transition and the requirements.
There’s only one problem. There aren’t that many NASA scientists anxious to move into classrooms. That’s one of the findings of a new University of North Carolina study on teacher effectiveness measured through student performance on end-of-grade and end-of-course tests.
Many people assumed that mid-career job changers would prove the salvation of public education by bringing their content expertise and successful work experience with them.
It turns out that many have neither expertise nor great success.
“When we looked at these alternative or lateral entry teachers, many of them were quite young and were simply frustrated in getting a job in their chosen profession,” said Gary Henry, director of the UNC Carolina Institute for Public Policy. “The folks switching from high-performing private sector jobs are a very small minority.
“More typical of these lateral entries are fashion majors who realize they are not going to be designing high fashions,” Henry said. ‘‘They shifted over to teaching as a reasonable second or third choice.”
According to the study, these lateral/alternative-entry teachers, who comprise 15 percent of the workforce, perform worse in high schools, where they are highly concentrated.
The study found that the other least-effective teachers were first-year and teachers hired from out-of-state, who comprise nearly a fourth of the North Carolina teacher workforce. The out-of-state teachers perform worse than UNC undergraduate-prepared teachers in five of 11 comparisons.
Explaining the poor performance of out-of-state teachers, Henry said states likes Georgia and North Carolina serve a farm-team function.
“Generally, we are getting folks who could not get jobs in the states that they left because of a lack of experience. When they get the experience, they often return to Pennsylvania or New York,” he said.
The study found the most effective North Carolina teachers were from Teach for America, which handpicks elite college graduates, puts them through boot camp-styled training and places them in the classroom with ongoing supports. Middle school math students taught by Teach for America teachers gained the equivalent of about 90 extra days of learning in a year.
Teach for America sends experienced teachers into the classroom several times a year to observe new recruits and engage them later in a feedback session that begins with, “What did you think your weaknesses were today?” said Henry. And the program holds weekend staff development sessions focused on effective practices for its teachers.
But could it be that Teacher for America’s real secret is starting with the smartest college graduates? Henry said he doesn’t know, but hopes to explore that question in later research, some of it perhaps funded by North Carolina’s recent Race to the Top grant.
Henry said first-year teachers out of traditional programs, even if well prepared to teach, are often ill prepared to manage a classroom. “They very rarely get feedback and mentoring, as opposed to program models like Teach for America that offer professional development and support. “These teachers from traditional education programs are basically turned out on their own,” he said.
Overall, graduates of UNC teaching programs landed in the middle of pack in classroom effectiveness. Not all 15 teacher preparation programs on UNC campuses are alike, but Henry suspects it may be the sink-or-swim reality that dooms new teachers in the field.
The most promising college model to bolster first-year teachers is “three plus one,” in which candidates spend three years in classes and then have a full year of teaching under the supervision of veterans, he said.
So, who, as a parent, would Henry want in his children’s classrooms? A fully certified teacher with three to four years experience, he said.
“And I probably want teachers who have degrees from a teacher-preparation program because that indicates that these people invested their own energy into becoming a better teacher.”