Hot for Teaching: Education Attracts More Qualified Candidates

Teaching is attracting better qualified candidates. That is the conclusion of a study by Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch of the Center of Education Data and Research (CEDR).  In this article published in the Winter 2014 issue of Education Next, Messrs. Goldhaber and Walch not only discuss the results of their research but also outline the historical trends that led to the initial decline in the academic qualifications of teachers.

Teaching, class

A young teacher helps one of her students in class.

The story goes something like this. A few decades ago, teaching was the most popular career choice for well-educated women. Then came the women’s liberation movement, and new opportunities in varying fields pulled qualified women away from teaching. The talent pool shrank, and academic qualifications for teachers overall fell.

To illustrate, the percentage of teaching candidates graduating in the top 10% of their high school class declined from 25% in 1964 to 11% in 2000.  During the same time period, the percentage of teachers that scored in the lowest 60% in standardized testing increased from 32-35% to 42%. Check out that research here.

Then came No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001. The law put in several new requirements on teaching, like making teachers complete certain required courses or pass competency tests in the subject areas which they teach. NCLB also introduced a ton of new testing. Many predicted that the stricter requirements and emphasis on testing would deter qualified candidates from applying.

The research presented in the article, however, suggests the opposite trend. Teacher qualifications are improving. Unlike in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, graduates entering the teaching profession had slightly higher SAT test scores on average than peers entering other professions. Those  teachers scored in the 50th percentile in 2008-09, compared to the 45th percentile and 42nd percentile for new teachers in 1993-94 and 2000-01 respectively.

New teachers also spend more time in school than in the past. The number of teachers holding master’s degrees increased from 47% to 51% from the 1987-88 school year to the 2007-08 year, and the percentage of prospective teachers formally training in graduate programs rather than undergraduate programs rose from around 45% in 1990 to 63% in 2010.

Can we take encouragement from these figures? Maybe. The numbers are somewhat outdated and may reflect tougher economics conditions rather than stronger interest among qualified applicants. Teaching could be a more attractive option only because it offers more security and more opportunities in a challenging job market. At the same time, these are long term trends and figures from 2008 would only reflect the very beginning of the financial crisis.

What do you think? What’s behind the rise in the number of qualified teachers? Please let us know in the comment section below.

The Common Core and Its Many Colors

Henry Ford once said that any customer could have a car painted any color he liked as long as it was black. Many opponents of the Common Core standards see policymakers giving teachers a similar offer. Teach whatever you want as long as it is the Common Core. Proponents say the standards set broad goals and give freedom to teachers to employ their own methods toward reaching those goals.  Critics say they box teachers in, preventing them from adjusting their class material to the needs of their students.

Common Core

How much freedom does Common Core give for teachers to teach?

The basic idea behind the Common Core is that students around the country should study similar topics at similar times.  For example, all students should study subtraction in the second grade and past tense verbs in fourth.—Disclaimer: I am making these up for the sake of illustration. I am already too far behind schedule to read through all the standards. Anyway, the point is, all the teachers have the same goals and can use various methods to reach those goals.

Proponents of the standards see them as key to equalizing educational experiences and educational opportunities around the country.  It doesn’t seem fair that students in rural Kentucky wouldn’t get opportunities to study the same material as the students in New York City. Or vice versa. Common Core material also prepares students for SAT and ACT college entrance exams. By making sure all students cover the same material, Common Core proponents are hoping to level the playing field.

That approach may ignore circumstances, however, which require teachers to slow down and make sure students understand the material. Students in low income areas, for example, or whose first language is not English, may not be ready to study the same topics as students in an upper class suburban neighborhood.

Further complicating things, the combination of the Common Core and the No Child Left Behind policy produces a whole lot of tests. Those test results significantly influence a teacher’s future. Weighing those test results too heavily would reward a teacher for effectively teaching test-taking skills, but not necessarily being good teachers. In this sense, like Henry Ford’s offer, teachers can teach anything they want as long as it is the stuff on the tests.

Let me throw out a hypothetical here: What if a teacher has to spend extra time helping students learn to play well together? Seriously, I’m not joking. Students from rough backgrounds often need time to learn to get along better with each other. That is a valuable, life-long skill. And hats off to a teacher that can actually teach that. But will it help on those dang test scores? Probably not. And if so, maybe not until a few more years down the road.

I mean, surely it is not bad to have some general direction on what to teach in class and occasional measures of effectiveness in teaching that material. The problem is, it is tough to properly measure all the many roles that teachers perform. The most profound ways in which teachers influenced me were only loosely related to coursework. So how can we measure the importance of a teacher that inspires children to travel, to help others, to be good friends and neighbors?

I don’t have the answer for that, but I am very interested to know what our readers think. How can you judge the effectiveness of teachers when they are expected to perform so many different roles?  And how much flexibility should teachers have in determining the academic material covered in class?

Assess to Impress: Homework, Quizzes, and Personal Attention

Learning assessment is an essential ingredient of education in any form.  Teachers can gauge the progress of their students and identify topics and skills needing more review. Students also learn from the process by challenging themselves and determining their strengths and weaknesses. Assessment can come in several forms, all of which are easily transferable to online venues.

Online Teaching, Assessment

Assess to Impress:Homework, Quizzes, and Personal Attention

Homework is the most common form of assessment, and to maximize the benefit for your students, it is a good idea to put in some work of your own. First, communicate the goals or basic objectives for the homework, so students can see the bigger picture and understand the relevance of the work they are doing. Second, encourage students to pose questions to the class bulletin board rather than sending them to your personal email. In this way, other students, which may have similar questions, can see your responses and join in the discussion.

Once you’ve collected some of these questions and your responses to them, put them together in a single Q&A document and include it for reference with the homework assignment in future classes. Speaking of reference, include links in the homework for students to find further background information and/or illustrative examples of how students have responded to similar homework tasks.

Quizzes are another great form of assessment, and Rukuku plans to introduce a special quiz building feature to its Composer service in coming weeks. For online classes, teachers can take advantage of technology to randomize questions. This will reduce chances of students improperly working together but more importantly, it will allow teachers to offer multiple tests to a single student covering the same material. Students can solidify their understanding in this way and prepare for final tests.

Finally, personal interaction is a great form of assessment. Good old fashioned question and answer sessions help teachers determine how well students understand the class material. At Rukuku, we’ve made a point of emphasizing small, private, online classes, or SPOCs. With smaller class sizes, teachers can build a personal relationship with each student and hopefully get a sense during class time of his or her level of understanding. If a particular student is struggling, consider a private chat, where you can work with him or her on the material. Personal attention goes a long way.

Saved by the Bell: How long should online classes last?

A big step in structuring online classes relates to the duration of the lectures and the discussion classes. For both, the type of material and sophistication of the students influences that length significantly. A graduate student will likely be able to follow a longer lecture than a fifth grader, for example.

online classes, time

Teachers can break up lectures into 15-20 minute chunks to increase convenience and keep students’ attention.

One of the most important distinctions to make, when putting together an online class, is between lecture time and class discussion time. A big advantage of online classes is that lecture time can be recorded in advance and included for students to watch at their convenience. In fact, teachers can even utilize lectures from other sources, if they feel the lectures adequately cover the topics.

Even given this flexibility, it can be challenging to determine the proper length of time for a lecture. Traditionally, lectures last about hour, at least in most high schools and universities. Some evidence suggests, however, that lectures broken up into chunks of about 15 – 20 minutes are easier for students to process.

Again, online education has a big advantage here. Teachers can break up their lectures into smaller chunks of time more easily than teachers in traditional lecture halls and classrooms. Students can watch the lectures at their own pace, taking as much time as they would like between portions of the lecture.

As for the discussion portion of the class, this can vary widely, depending on the topic material and personal preferences of the teachers and students. Generally, it is good to plan for 50 minutes to an hour, even if the official time for the class is shorter.This will give you more time to let the discussion grow organically.

The most important thing to remember in this process is to keep the focus on the students, creating as many opportunities as possible for the students to talk or otherwise be actively involved in the class.

Get Online and Stay Interactive: Media tools make interaction easy.

When venturing into the online classroom, many teachers worry that they will lose the personal interaction present in the traditional classroom setting.  There, students and teachers are face-to-face, which creates that old-school type of interaction called conversation. In many popular online learning management systems, that interaction changes to a written format, which allows students to continue making comments 24 hours a day. This flexibility is one the biggest selling points for online education.

online classes, interactivity, teaching online

Teachers can utilize video chats, virtual whiteboards, and forums to increase student interaction.

At the same time, the spontaneity of live class discussion can be lost. Students often learn more from those discussions with teachers and classmates than from their homework, reading, and problem sets. The slower format of class comment, and even live chat, which operates in real time through written formats, can dampen that discussion.

At Rukuku, we’ve tried to maintain all of these elements by offering a live video chat feature, as well as written chat and comment sections. We also include a virtual white board, which allows both teachers and students to write via iPads or on their computer screens. For example, a teacher could write a math problem on the white board and let the student solve it. Through all these features, online channels can actually strengthen interaction.

Strengthening that interaction takes more than technological tools, however. It takes time. This is one of the biggest surprises for many first-time online teachers. Because class discussion can continue 24 hours a day, teachers must commit to checking in on their classes and commenting often. For better or worse, most online students have come to expect prompt responses.

Toward that end, many online class services require teachers to respond to student comments within a certain time frame, usually 48 hours. Teachers that don’t have those requirements specifically should impose them on themselves. We all have emails from friends and family sitting in our inboxes, waiting for responses. Those responses usually don’t happen if they don’t happen quickly. If you are planning an online class, set a deadline at 12, 24, or at most 48 hours to respond to your students’ comments.

AND, in addition to that, schedule a video chat, just as you would in a traditional course. You may be able to include your lecture in recorded video form as preparation material, together with assigned reading. But make sure you schedule some time each week to lead a video chat. It will add spontaneity and virtual face time, while bringing your students closer to you and to each other.

Finntastic Education!

Government policymakers everywhere want to make their schools better. To do that, many of them look to the country of Finland for guidance. That’s right, Finland. Finland’s education system places first in the world in several different rankings, including this one, conducted by Education firm Pearson.  For comparison, Japan is fourth, Germany 15th, and the US 17th. After learning about the country’s stellar ranking, I wanted to know more. I did a bit of research (aka Googled Finland, Education), and learned some interesting facts.

Finland, education system

Finland’s education system ranks first in the world.

First, and my favorite, Finnish elementary students have more fun. Elementary students in Finland spend around 75 minutes a day for recess, compared to 27 minutes for students in the US. Teachers get more free time, too, spending only four hours per day in the classroom, on average. That leaves more time for evaluation, reflection, collaboration, and further training,

Second, people really want to be teachers. In 2010, 6600 people applied for 660 teaching positions in Finland, according to sources cited by the Smithsonian Magazine. The reason is probably not the salary. Primary school teachers in Finland have an average starting salary of less than $31,000 and maximum salary of about $40,000, compared to $38,000 and $53,000 respectively in the US. The profession is highly respected, though, and the government pays for the masters’ degrees for those accepted into the education training program. All teachers must have master’s degrees.

Those master’s degrees come in handy because the central government also gives a lot of autonomy to the country’s teachers and principals. The national government only offers broad guidelines, leaving it up to local officials and educators to determine the best methods for achieving those goals.

Finally, students usually have only one standardized test, which takes place when students are already approaching the end of high school. Students generally are kept in the same class as well, rather than separated into groups based on performance. As a result, the difference between the highest and lowest performing students is the lowest in the world.

There are many reasons why Finland’s educational model doesn’t translate easily to other places. The country is small, only 5.4 million people, and homogenous, with more than 90% of the population of Finnish descent. But even when compared to similar Scandinavian countries, or states like Kentucky or Minnesota, with similar demographics, its educational system outperforms.

So, which of these points – more recess for children, stricter requirements and more financial support and planning time for teachers, greater autonomy at the local level, or fewer standardized tests – do you think could be most beneficial for the educational system of your city, state, country?