Are Alternative Pathways into Teaching Bad for Students?

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ImageIn the vast majority of education systems, there is a well-defined path to become a teacher. In most cases, this path begins early on in an individual’s career choices. At the time of graduation from high school or entrance into higher education, individuals enter initial teacher training programs. When the profession is attractive (based on not just salary but also working conditions and career opportunities), competition into these programs can be very intense, such as in Finland, Korea and Singapore.  In these cases, systems can be selective in who they admit into teaching, and new teachers are among the brightest, best educated, hardest working, and most motivated workers in society.

But the profession is very attractive in only a few countries. In most other nations, the number of teacher applicants does not exceed the number of teacher positions by much, and when it does (as in India), selection processes to assign the teacher positions are seldom set up to choose the very best. As a result, in many countries around the world, the best and the brightest are entering professions other than teaching. This is troubling because a substantial body of research convincingly shows that teacher quality is the most important school-based predictor of student learning. Indeed, several consecutive years of outstanding teaching can even offset the learning gaps between advantaged (socio-economically, racially or ethnically, by gender) and disadvantaged students. 

To recruit the teachers they need to fill all classrooms, many countries around the world have had to resort to “alternative pathways”. In some cases, these alternatives to traditional pathways into teaching have raised concerns, as some see them as a channel for even greater deterioration (or de-professionalization) of the teaching profession. Others see them as unavoidable consequences of the reality of expanding access to school in the absence of commensurate increases in education budgets. Yet others see them as an opportunity to bring new, fresh perspectives into a profession that has declined in quality over time, in part as a result of the expansion in schooling that most education systems have undertaken in the recent decades.

What does the evidence tell us about how effective are teachers hired outside the traditional pathways?

In a nutshell, the evidence from various programs across the world suggests that alternative pathways may help ease teacher shortages and bring into the profession individuals who are at least as effective as traditionally-trained teachers. Moreover, even if they leave the profession after only a few years, they may remain committed and involved in education reform throughout their careers. But the details of these programs matter to their effectiveness.

In a recent paper, Karthik Muralidharan and Venkatesh Sundararaman, report on the findings of an experiment in Andhra Pradesh, India, where the large-scale expansion of primary education has led to the hiring of “contract teachers”. These are teachers who are hired on fixed-term renewable contracts without having been professionally trained through the traditional initial teacher education programs, and who are paid much lower salaries than regular civil service teachers. In the experiment, an extra contract teacher was assigned to 100 randomly-chosen government-run rural primary schools in the state. At the end of two years, students in schools with an extra contract teacher performed significantly better than those in comparison schools by 0.15 and 0.13 standard deviations in math and language tests, respectively. One of the possible channels via which these gains were achieved is simply that contract teachers were significantly less likely to be absent from school than civil-service teachers, who in India have been documented to have very high absenteeism rates by Chaudhury and others, 2006 (16% v. 27%, respectively).

Duflo, Dupas, and Kremer (2007) carried out a similar experiment in Kenya, where they evaluated the impact of locally-hired contract teachers on student learning outcomes. They report that providing school committees with funds to hire an extra teacher on a short-term contract had a generally positive effect on learning, as measured by test scores.  Like in the India study, one possible channel was the lower absenteeism rates of contract teachers.  However, they note that the implementation details of the program mattered: training school committees to monitor the contract teachers increased program effectiveness.

In the U.S., the best known alternative pathway into teaching is Teach for America. Founded in 1989, TFA was conceived with the goal of attracting some of the best and brightest college graduates into teaching. TFA recruits college graduates from all backgrounds (not necessarily education graduates) from some of the best colleges and universities in the country to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools that serve disadvantaged students. They provide a 5-week training program prior to sending them to their first teaching job.  After the two-year teaching commitment, they are part of the growing network of TFA alumni, many of whom leave teaching to move to leadership positions across society (although many of them become education leaders).

Several studies have analyzed the extent to which TFA teachers are helping their students learn at least as much as traditional teachers. One of the most sophisticated of these studies was published in June 2004 by Mathematica Policy Research. It  found that students of TFA teachers learned at least as much in reading, and slightly more in math, than traditionally prepared and certified teachers working in the same schools and grades (in other words, teaching students with very similar backgrounds and challenges).

One of the perhaps most important, and difficult to measure, effects of TFA, has been that many of its alumni go on to contribute in many other ways to education.  According to a recent New York Times article, of its 17,000 alumni, 63 percent remain in the field of education and 31 percent remain in the classroom.  Indeed, some notable TFA-alumni have gone on to found organizations focusing on other aspects of improving teaching and learning, such as The New Teacher Project, whose founder, Michelle Rhee, also went on to lead significant reforms as Chancellor of the District of Columbia’s public school system.

In 2007, Teach for All was founded as an international network to assist in the adaptation of the Teach for America and Teach First models to countries outside the US. These programs, now spanning 19 countries, are beginning to recruit top graduates from the best universities to two-year teaching positions in the most under-served schools. While it is still too early to assess the impact of TFA-like models outside the United States, the first adaptation of the model in Latin America, in Chile, is showing promising results on student learning (see Alfonso, Santiago and Bassi 2010).  Over time, these programs have the potential to contribute to generate interest in teaching and education leadership among nations’ top college graduates around the world. That can’t be bad for students.

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