How to Improve Teacher Quality? Treat Teachers as Individuals
Maybe the Square Peg Will Do


"I don't see why my son has any right to fancy himself a square peg ... when his father, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, have been round pegs; and it is agin' nature for any creature not to take after its own kind." —Edward Bulwer-Lytoon, Kenneth Chillingly, His Adventures and Opinions (1873)


The teacher-quality debate today is something of an absurdist's delight. On the one hand are union leaders who insist that we shouldn't expect miracles from teachers already doing their best to inspire, mentor, design and align lessons, differentiate instruction, craft assessments, analyze data, grade homework, connect with parents, enforce discipline, promote fitness, cultivate a love of learning, write individualized education programs, and so on. We're told that the job is what it is, and that all we can usefully do is pay, support, and appreciate teachers more. Anything else is to rail against nature's course.

To those of us unmoved by this appeal, would-be reformers argue that many teachers are "ineffective," and they propose plans to replace them with a couple of million all-stars via the skillful manipulation of value-added assessment, new evaluation systems, and merit pay. Meanwhile, the professional-development gurus insist, against all evidence and a couple of compelling Institute of Education Sciences studies, that if we'd just embrace new preparation models, they could dramatically boost the quality of teaching.

We find the remedies proffered by both the would-be reformers and the professional developers to be lacking. The first envisions a death-defying search for elusive round pegs and the second a grand scheme to shave square pegs until they're round. It strikes us that there's a third, generally ignored, option. We've got a slew of square pegs that don't seem to fit cleanly into their round holes. Perhaps, rather than search madly for round pegs, we might start asking how to alter the shape of the holes.

We might tackle the teacher-quality problem not by finding more superheroes able to master a hugely demanding job, or by placing boundless faith in training and professional development, but by rethinking the job so that more people might do it well. This entails unbundling the teaching job so that each teacher isn't asked to excel at so many different things, and reimagining the job in a manner that permits individual teachers to spend more time doing what they're best at.

The notion of the do-everything teacher once made good sense, when talent was cheap and plentiful and when our demands on teachers were pretty basic. A century ago, academic expectations were minimal, public schools were intended largely to keep kids off the streets and teach them to behave, and even highly educated women enjoyed few career paths beyond teaching.

Today, however, our expectations have skyrocketed, and the talented women who filled our classrooms through the 1960s are now found more often in law firms than in schools. The job market, too, has changed. Whereas a half-century ago employees would stay in the same occupation for most of their working lives, today's professionals are much more mobile. Meanwhile, new tools, such as distance learning and computer-assisted instruction, make it possible to deliver instruction and professional support in ways that were once unthinkable.

"We might tackle the teacher-quality problem by rethinking the job so that more people do it well."

Given these shifts, rethinking the teaching job seems less a bold move than a no-brainer. We don't have to look far to find at least three ways to start rethinking the job.

One, rethinking geographical limitations. Virtual-learning options like can offer families online tutoring in a variety of subjects, 24 hours a day, from expert tutors around the world. Instead of relying on full-time, in-classroom teachers, this arrangement makes it possible for students to have access to high-quality supplementary instruction either at school or from home. Fundamentally, this means it's at least conceivable that we can provide quality calculus instruction to students in west Texas or rural Kentucky even if it's tough to get a terrific math teacher to move there.

Two, rethinking tasks. Rocketship Education is a high-performance charter school that uses a hybrid model of classroom instruction, real-time assessments, and customized, supplementary services in its "learning lab." The result is that each teacher has any given student for only about 75 percent of the school day, as the student spends the other quarter receiving computer-assisted instruction or small-group tutoring from local college students. This division of labor allows classroom instructors to delegate substantial amounts of remediation, basic skill-building, assessment and analysis, and activity-materials management to the tutors, so that they can focus on cultivating expert-level skills in coaching and motivation, instruction and discussion, classroom management, and problem-solving around student issues and needs.

Three, rethinking who can teach. Boston-based Citizen Schools, for example, provides highly regarded after-school instruction and career-based learning by arranging for local volunteers to work with students on a regular basis. Rather than simply serve as mentors or once-a-week "reading buddies," participants teach weekly modules that tackle complex projects with interested students. Citizen Schools leverages the expertise of local professionals on a part-time (and cost-free) basis and points to the promise of approaches that do not wholly depend on full-time, career-long staffing.

A working group on the "Futures of School Reform," organized by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and led by Robert B. Schwartz and Jal D. Mehta of Harvard and Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, includes more than two dozen researchers, policymakers, and practitioners from around the country. The group is seeking to engage a wider audience in an "urgent" conversation—one that it hopes can advance the national dialogue on improving public education for all children. The working group has received convening support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.

Education Week is running a seven-part series of Commentary essays expressing visions of members of the "Futures" group. The series, which concludes in the May 25 issue, is accompanied by a blog, The Futures of School Reform, written by the group. Readers are invited to participate by posting comments on the blog, or writing letters to the editor.

Such developments suggest opportunities to expand and then better use the pool of teaching talent through smart differentiation and specialization. These changes make it newly possible to pipe in instructional support from New Delhi or Singapore, or more systematically possible to use cheap talent and computer-assisted models to provide intensive remediation or enrichment opportunities.

Despite the inertia that prevails in K-12 schooling, we don't have to start from scratch. We can gaze at models of practice in other professions, such as law or medicine, which arrange work relationships rather differently. For instance, in the field of medicine, the first specializations were proposed a century ago; today, the American Medical Association recognizes roughly 200 specialties.

Consequently, while the Census Bureau reports around 7 million medical professionals in the United States today, fewer than 10 percent of them are M.D.s. The rest are trained practitioners with complementary skills. The trick is figuring out how to mesh and coordinate skills in a smooth, cooperative fashion. This is not easy work, but we posit it's more manageable than asking each and every medical practitioner to be a gifted cardiovascular surgeon, nurse, pediatrician, urologist, and on and on.

We would think it bewildering if we walked into a hospital and saw elite cardiovascular surgeons, novice residents, and bookkeepers taking turns conducting heart surgery and handling administrative duties. Yet that is standard practice in schools, where all teachers—regardless of skill or demonstrated performance—take equal turns monitoring the lunchroom, supervising bus loading, patrolling the hallways, filling out stacks of mandated paperwork, and the rest.

In fact, if one walks into a local elementary school and asks the principal to identify the school's best 4th grade math teacher and the school's worst, it's almost certain that each will be teaching the same amount of math to the same number of students each day. Each teacher is instructing his or her bundle of 20-odd students in math, reading, science, history, and everything else, regardless of skill or expertise. This is a profoundly careless use of talent, yet it is unexceptional today.

Teacher preparation and licensure will need to change accordingly. Today, they're designed around the assumption that everyone is doing a version of the same job. However, for those who are only tutoring online, say, or for the Citizen Schools-style instructors, the traditional full-time-teacher preparation and credential model seems a poor fit. A more personalized, segmented approach to teacher training could meet educators at their own levels of need, providing the tools and training they need relative to their positions; no more, no less.

Just as we need to rethink preparation to acknowledge a diversity of training needs, our current pay and evaluation systems need to be rethought to recognize smart differentiation. We've turned a corner in recognizing that some teachers add more value than do others, due to their roles, workloads, or skills, and they should be rewarded accordingly. However, in their championing of heavy reliance on value-added scores as measures of performance, today's would-be reformers are promoting mechanistic systems tightly bound to the one-size-fits-all status quo, crafting systems that seem calculated to stifle hybridization, specialization, and use of virtual or computer-assisted learning.

Here's the bottom line: If most people can't do a job well most of the time, you can make the job easier, or split it into multiple pieces, or lean more heavily on tools. Any of those strike us as a more promising route than holding a casting call for 3 million superheroes.

Frederick Hess is a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at AEI

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About the Author


Frederick M.
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.

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