Today I received on my desk an advanced copy of Wendy Kopp’s new book. In addition to being one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2008, Kopp is my boss, many times removed. She’s the founder and CEO of Teach For America, an organization pioneering education reform in America and attracting more recent graduates from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale than any other institution out of college. These future leaders are plunged into America’s neediest public schools for two years, where they generally out-perform most teachers and either continue teaching or advocate for education equity in other careers.
I plan on reviewing the book eventually and live blogging from TFA’s 20th anniversary summit in Washington D.C. in early February, but I’d like to build some context before all that. Today I’ll look at a recent report from McKinsey on teacher quality; next up I’ll talk about Kopp’s first book, One Day All Children….
Let’s start at the beginning.
Imagine you are a student living in a low-income community. You are a pretty normal kid, no brain injuries, but also not a savant. By the time you reach forth grade, you will be almost three grades behind in reading. If you graduate (it’s more likely you won’t), you will read and do math at the level of an eighth-grader. Now, if you could be so kind, please stop being so poor and violent and find yourself a job.
There are many critiques of American public education, but the most basic is that it fails to do what it intends to do. Thomas Jefferson described its goals well in the Virgina Elementary School Act of 1817:
We have proposed a plan to avail the commonwealth of those talents and virtues which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as rich, and which are lost to their country by the want of means for their cultivation.”
There are many reasons for this tragic waste of money and opportunity. A recent McKinsey report echoes a growing consensus: students in America (low-income students in particular) don’t have very good teachers. McKinsey begins by looking at how public education systems in Finland, Singapore, and South Korea attract, retain, and develop their teachers. Each country selects teachers from the top third of a given academic year (South Korea recruits exclusively from the top 5%). After clearing this bar, potential teachers are screened for other factors and then rigorously trained. The program in Singapore is described by an official as noble and “glamorous.” After 15 years, teachers in South Korea make 221% of per capita GDP, while American teachers make 96%. With all that glamour, it’s not hard to believe the teachers in Singapore keep teaching. Only 3% quit annually, compared to 14% in the US overall and 20% in high-poverty schools.
In Chicago, where I help train and manage new teachers, we have an additional statistic that adds some color to the concern of general teacher quality. A study from 2006 reports that the average ACT score of a teacher in Chicago Public Schools is 19. To be considered “college-ready” a student needs at least a 22.
Despite this grim picture, there is hope. More than half of the 3.3 million teachers in America’s public education system are eligible to retire in the next decade, and programs like Teach For America are increasingly filling that gap with talented, hard-working recruits. More on that next time.